Monthly Archives: November 2011

Background Briefing by a Senior Administration Official to Journalists Traveling with Vice President Biden

Release Time: 
For Immediate Release

Location: 
U.S. Embassy, Annex 1, Baghdad, Iraq

7:27 P.M. (Local)

        SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So this is on background, senior administration officials.

        SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Can I just start by I think clearing up something that's very important to understand because I think there’s been some misunderstanding, and that's reflected in some of the early stories we’ve seen?  There is no discussion, no plan, no thought of U.S. troops returning to Iraq.

        The discussion today regarding U.S. training in Iraq is something entirely different, and let me explain what we’re talking about.  It’s already agreed that as we do in embassies around the world, we will have and we, indeed, already have what’s called an Office of Security Cooperation.  And its purpose is to help Iraqis acquire and then learn how to use military equipment that they buy from the United States.  And in Iraq that office will have — and these people are under the authority of the ambassador — but it will include about 157 people assigned to the embassy, some of whom are military.  And then it will also include people who come in on an individual contract for two or three months at a time to again help the Iraqis train on the equipment they bought, and then they leave.  And again, this is what we do in embassies around the world in countries where we have a military sales relationship, and that's already established and is up and running.

        What we’re talking about going forward as possibilities of training beyond the Office of Security Cooperation includes things like the possibility of doing ongoing training of Iraqis outside of Iraq in other countries, integrating Iraqis into regional exercises, possibly rotational training where people could come in for a short period of time, but even that is unlikely.  None of this involves the deployment of U.S. forces to Iraq to be stationed here.  So I just want to make sure that that's clear because it seems like there’s some confusion about that based on some of the things that we’ve seen.  And of course, I’m happy to take questions on that.

        Let me just say a few things at the top and then open it to questions on anything.  I think what you’ve seen today and what you’ll see tomorrow really is a pivotal moment.  The Vice President’s visit marks I think an important moment in both the life of the United States and our relationship with Iraq.  It’s the end of nearly a decade of war and the start of a new relationship with a sovereign Iraq.  

        And to sort of put this in perspective, more than a million American soldiers have come to Iraq since 2003.  A quarter of Iraq’s population was born after 2003 and has only experienced in their short lives this conflict.  And indeed, the country of Iraq has defined itself for more than 50 years basically in opposition to the West.  And today what you witnessed with the meeting of the Higher Coordination Committee of the Strategic Framework Agreement is an Iraq that's seeking to build with the United States a comprehensive new relationship based on trade, education, culture, science, security and many other things, so this is really — as the Vice President said repeatedly — a promise kept, a promise fulfilled.

        The President and Vice President came to office committed to ending the war in Iraq responsibly, and that's exactly what we’re marking now with the end of the military mission in Iraq and the start of this new relationship.  And again, today’s meeting I think marked that transition very well and as you heard already lots has been achieved in these different areas, and there’s a very significant agenda going forward.

        The Vice President today also held meetings with Prime Minister Maliki, President Talabani, Speaker Nujafi.  They covered a broad array of issues in these meetings, including this transition to a civilian lead in Iraq for the United States, the security relationship going forward.  They talked about the resolution of some of Iraq’s remaining international issues; its Chapter Seven obligations, including its relationship with Kuwait.  They talked about regional issues including Syria, Turkey, for example.  They talked about internal security, especially the need to keep the pressure on violent extremist groups, and they talked about outstanding political issues in Iraq including Arab-Kurd relations, hydrocarbons, et cetera.  And of course, they discussed the Prime Minister’s upcoming visit to Washington where he will see President Obama.

        All of this is very powerful evidence that the United States is not disengaging from Iraq, rather the nature of our engagement is changing from what has been a military lead to a civilian lead.  We’ve moved, as the Vice President put it, from the security agreement that governed our military operations in Iraq to the strategic framework agreement, which is the basis for this comprehensive new relationship.

        Let me end it there and invite any questions.

        Q    Can you talk a little bit about what they discussed on Syria and Turkey?  Given what’s happening in Syria at the moment, a source a great concern for the Iraqis?

        SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, it is a source of concern and it’s understandable because — and I don't want to over-characterize the Iraq position.  You should really get that from them, but I think it’s been clear from comments that they’ve made in the past that they are concerned about the situation in Syria and sectarian conflict that spills over to Iraq and causes or helps spark that kind of tension here.

        One, we don't see any signs of that actually happening in Iraq.  But two, to the extent that's a concern what the Vice President said is the source of instability in Syria right now is President Asad.  And if he is allowed to continue killing his own people then there is a danger that what’s happening in Syria does turn into sectarian conflict, exactly what the Iraqis fear.  And so the answer to this is to see that President Asad follows through on the calls of his own people and the international people to leave office.

        Q    But if Asad stepped down, do you think the tensions and the factional splits that are coming to the surface now are going to just die down?  I mean the cat’s kind of out of the bag there.

        SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Look, you can't know — no one can know for sure what’s going to happen.  What we do know is that what is causing these tensions to come to the surface now is the fact that there is a government in place in Syria that is killing its own people on a daily basis, and that has to stop.  That we know.  And beyond that you can't predict.  All you can do is know what the basis of the situation now is a government that's killing and repressing its own people.  That is the cause of instability in Syria.

        Q    Can — go back to the troops for a second.  Prime Minister Maliki said no doubt there is a role for U.S. troops in providing training for Iraqi forces.  As far as you can read into what he’s saying is that the limited definition that you’re talking about?  Or did that strike you as a more broad interpretation of what might be possible –

        SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  It’s the limited definition of what I talked about earlier.  Again there is no discussion, no contemplation, no thought of returning U.S. troops to Iraq.  But it was exactly the opposite.  What the Vice President said repeatedly, what we have said repeatedly is that we’re making good on the commitment to remove our troops from Iraq by the end of this year as we promised to do.  That's what we’re doing.

        And so when the — when the Prime Minister talks about a training relationship, he’s talking about these limited functions that I talked about earlier, that is the training that's already been agreed to as part of the Office of Security Cooperation to help Iraqis acquire and learn how to use American weapons systems and the possibility — none of which is agreed — but the kinds of things we’re discussing about ongoing training outside of Iraq, integration into regional exercises, technical assistance and expert level assistance on things like counterterrorism intelligence which can be done by people who are assigned to the embassy working with Iraqis.  But nothing about redeploying U.S. forces to be stationed here to train Iraqis.  That is not part at all of any discussion.

        Q    To what extent did Iran come up today?  And can you give me a sense for what message the Vice President may have brought relative to Iran’s role and whether Maliki said something — anything to you about the role he saw Iran playing?

        SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, Iran was discussed in — I think it came up in most of the meetings.  The Vice President made clear something that we’ve made clear repeatedly which is, one, we fully expect Iraq to have a relationship with Iran.  There’s a long border and a long history.  And that is fully understood.  But what is not acceptable and not understood would be to in any way allow Iran to use our presence in Iraq as a target.  

        We’ve committed in the past not to use Iraq as any kind of staging ground to act against other countries.  That would include Iran.  Reciprocally, it is fully our expectation that the government of Iraq not allow Iraq to be used as an area to target U.S. personal.  And so we were very gratified this summer when — after there had been an uptick in militia attacks against U.S. personnel that Prime Minister Maliki had his forces go on the offensive in Maysan.   

        Also the Iraqis told Tehran that they had to stop their support for extremist militias and that Iraq considered an attack on Americans in Iraq to be an attack on Iraq and its own sovereignty.  And we’ve seen since a significant decrease in these actions.  But that's something that needs to be sustained going forward, and so there was discussion of that.

        Q    Did they talk about air support for Iraq –

        SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Air support in what sense?  I’m sorry –

        Q    Like Iraq would have (inaudible) –

        SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Oh, well, one — yes, one of the things they talked about was the fact that Iraq is buying American F-16s.

        Q    (Inaudible.)

        SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, it will take time, but we will have again as part of the Office of Security Cooperation, American experts here to help Iraq acquire those planes an train on them.  Before that — this was not discussed, but there may be things that can be done before that regionally and outside of Iraq to build up Iraqi capacity in the air, but there was no discussion of that today.

        Q    Over the short-term how can Iraqi air space be defended — lack of fighter aircrafts, surface-to-air missiles, et cetera?

        SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, in the first instance, it’s not at all clear to me where any threat — external threat to Iraq is coming from.  The security challenges in Iraq now are internal, and it’s our assessment that Iraqi security forces are very much capable of dealing with those threats.  We have — as the Vice President said today, we have spent many years and many resources helping Iraq build up its capacity of its security forces — army, police and others and special forces.  And they’ve demonstrated significant effectiveness.  I think it’s worth noting that while tragically Iraq continues to be plagued by violent incidents and extremist attacks, overall what is striking is that those incidents are at an historic low and have remained so for almost two years.

        In 2007, 2008 at the height of insecurity in Iraq, there were about 1,600 violent incidents every week.  Now there are fewer than 100 violent incidents a week, and so you’ve seen a more than tenfold decrease in violent incidents.  And again, this has been constant over the last couple of years.  And that's I think for two — primarily for two reasons:  one, because of the capabilities and capacities of the Iraqi security forces, but two, because politics has emerged as the basic way of doing business in Iraq.  All of the major stakeholders are finding that they can protect their interests and advance their interests through the political process, and so that's extremely encouraging.

        Q    You mentioned hydrocarbons.  Did the Exxon contract with the Kurdish regional government get discussed?  And what can you tell us about that?

        SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I don't — I’ll ask my colleague.  I don't recall that being discussed.  Hydrocarbons were discussed, and we heard from the Iraqis today some confidence that the long-awaited hydrocarbons law would actually come up and be –

        Q    How many years has that been?

        SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, 2007 I think.

        Q    I was here.

        SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  What we heard today from a couple people was that it would come up to the Council of Representatives before the end of the year.  Now hope springs eternal.  This has been going on for a while, but there was some optimism expressed about the prospects of actually getting that done, and that would be a very significant step forward because what you see when you look at both the reality and the potential for oil production in this country is extraordinary but not yet realized.  A tremendous amount of investment has already been made, but a much greater amount of investment still needs to be made if Iraq is to realize its potential.

        And that investment while some of it’s happening is itself not going to be fully realized until there is certainty about the legal aspects of hydrocarbons.  And if this law gets done and creates that kind of certainty, it creates a much greater prospect for the kind of investment that's needed to help Iraq realize its production capacity.

        SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  My colleague is right in terms of the necessity of the hydrocarbons law to really unlock this full potential.  In the interim, over the last year, oil production has increased because some of the contracts that have been signed related to existing oil fields to improve their output, so it has gone up by about 500,000 barrels a day in the past year, and it’s anticipated to increase by another 500,000 over the next year.

        So while this doesn't fully realize what Iraq is capable of here, it does show that some demonstrable progress has been made.

        Q    Can I just follow up on this?  Exxon — I mean the Exxon issue got a lot of attention.  The central government actually threatened Exxon with sanctions, and it’s been asked about and talked about in a number of different venues.  I’m just interested why you don't think it came up.  I mean you obviously chose not to raise it, but then they chose not to raise it either.  Is it because there was a desire not to get involved in what is a business negotiation?

        SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  You have to ask the Iraqis about that.  From our perspective, this is a private transaction.  We’re not in the business of telling companies what to do and what not to do.  Obviously, when they ask us or consult with us, we lay out for them how we see the situation in a particular country, what the obstacles or concerns might be, but we’re not in the business of telling them what to do.  They have to make their own decisions and their own judgments.

        And again as to the Iraqi perspective, you’d have to ask them.

        Q    As you mentioned violence is down compared to the peak in ’06, ’07, but in the past six, seven, eight days, there’s been a number of fairly major attacks:  19 dead in Basra; at least 13, 14 in Taji, bombings in Abu Ghraib, Baghdad.  It’s a fairly high tempo of significant attacks in recent days.  What is your assessment of this? And is this kind of a last challenge to the U.S. here?  Or how do you assess it?

        SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  A couple things.  What we’ve seen in the past is particularly al Qaeda in Iraq is unfortunately able to conduct occasional spectacular attacks.  And typically it takes it some weeks or even months between attacks to essentially rearm and be able to conduct another, so I think what we’ve seen in the last few days reflects another spasm from them.

        Second, for sure there are groups that are — that would like to create the impression through violent attacks now, create the narrative that they're responsible for chasing us out Iraq or forcing us to leave, which, of course, is fundamentally wrong.  But that is probably an objective.

        Again, what’s important to emphasize here is that these attacks are tragic.  They're terrible.  They take innocent Iraqi lives, which is why they're in such total revulsion in Iraq in all communities against the violent extremists.

        But in the larger context, the trends remain as they’ve been for the last two years which is violent incidents remain at historic lows, and we don't see that changing.

        Q    Do you have any plans for the Iraqi (inaudible) –

        SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, we have several programs that would allow Iraqis to seek to immigrate to the United States, including programs for those who have worked directly with us.  And so there are avenues for that.  We are constantly looking at those programs to make sure that they are as effective as they can be.  And obviously, we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to people who put their lives on the line in very difficult moments to work with us and work for a better Iraq, so it’s something we’re constantly looking at and thinking about and making sure that we’re doing the best job that we can in meeting any demand that exists.

        Q    But it’s taking a long time –

        SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, these things –

        Q    (Inaudible) asking about myself.  I’ve been waiting for two years.

        SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  And these programs across the board unfortunately when it comes to immigration take time.  Again, we’re constantly looking to see if we can improve and move things more quickly.  But these are — as you know apparently from personal experience — complicated matters, and we keep working on it.

        Q    Let’s go to Turkey.  The Turks talked about creating a buffer zone potentially in northern Syria.  What’s the administration’s view on the advisability of something like that?

        SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I haven’t heard that, and I also don't want to get into non-Iraq-related subjects for now.  So I’d leave that to Washington.

        Q    Ask a kind of a processy question?

        SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Sure.

        Q    The Vice President talked about that there was going to be a sort of a joint defense and security coordinating committee under auspices of the higher committee.  Why didn't that already exist?  Or was it handled differently?  And what significance does it have that a separate subcommittee is being organized?

        SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I think to understand this committee it’s going to start up operations early next year as we transition into this new civilian phase.  And this committee, just like all the others, is going to fall within this structure.  And it will have civilian leadership.  It will be led by State and Defense Department civilians, and so very much underscoring that the security and defense relationship will be much like it is managed with other countries with which we have normal relations and robust security and defense partnerships.

        And so beforehand, you could say that those aspects were governed under the security agreement.  With the expiration of the security agreement, as we go toward a more normal relationship, it’s going to come under the strategic framework agreement with this defense and security commission.  Does that –

        Q    Yes, I think that makes sense.

        SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I think it was deceptive today the way they announced it that it was something that they have launched when it was part of the process all along and just wasn’t — is now coming into fruition because of circumstances.

        Q    Right.  But with SOFA expiring you need to have some kind of a formal structure.

        SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Because the strategic framework agreement always included a security relationship.  That was part of the understanding of what a comprehensive relationship would be between the United States and Iraq.  But as my colleague just said, up until — or until December 31st that security aspect was governed by the security agreement, separate from the strategic framework agreement.

        Q    One of the things — just to follow up something you said at the top, which was Arab-Kurd relations were raised.  There’s been this concern about secession.  What was sort of said on that in private discussions today that you can share?

        SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Again, don't want to characterize what the Iraqis said.  The Vice President in his meetings and in the many conversations he’s had over the months with Iraq’s leaders has continued to talk about the importance of resolving the outstanding issues in that relationship:  the disputed — boundaries; the status of Kirkuk; hydrocarbons also fits into an Arab-Kurd relationship; the integration of the Pesh Merga into the Iraqi security forces.

        And by the way on the latter, there’s been — there was some significant progress in that the central government has now agreed to put a significantly greater number of Pesh Merga on the security payroll, so that's encouraging.  But this is just something that is a regular part of the conversation asking — basically asking the Iraqis for their assessment of progress, outstanding issues and how they want to be handling these.

        I should add that we’ve also had discussion and the Vice President talked to the head of the United Nations mission here.  And one of the U.N.’s functions here is to help deal with those issues, so that was also part of the discussion.

        Q    I mean Salahuddin recently declared some degree of autonomy, which is potentially a flashpoint.  Was that discussed in terms of a trigger?  

        SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  It wasn’t, but the Iraqi constitution provides mechanisms for the various governments to form regions if they choose.  There’s a whole process for that.  So there are — discussions about that come up from time to time as they have recently.  But that's an internal Iraqi matter.

        SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  That's going to be it, guys.  Thanks, guys.

END 7:55 P.M. (Local)

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Small Business Owner Says Payroll Tax Cuts Are “Game Changers”

President Obama was in Scranton, Pennsylvania today to talk about the importance of extending the payroll tax cut for all working Americans and their families, and for the strength of the overall economy. These tax cuts will also have a tremendous impact on America's small businesses, 91.5 percent of which have fewer than 5 employees. The White House Business Council spoke to the owner of one such business in Knoxville, Tennessee who says the President's plan will help her business grow by freeing up her own capital, and that of her potential and existing clients as well.

The tax code and creativity are not commonly linked in the minds of most people. Not so for Jenny Hines, President of Hines and Company Accountants, located in Knoxville, Tennessee.  “I was always interested in taxation not simply because of the planning and number crunching,” says Jenny, “but because that planning required a certain level of creativity.”

After graduating from the University of Tennessee with a Masters Degree in Taxation, Hines went to work for one of the largest CPA firms in the country.  But after watching many of the firm’s small business clients unable to afford its services, she decided to strike out on her own.  “There was an attitude at the large firm – and it certainly wasn’t everybody, but still – that was ‘How little work can we do, and still charge the client?’ People and their businesses were too often treated like commodities." 

Jenny Hines, President of Hines and Company Accountants

So in 1990, Hines founded Hines and Company. Her mission was simple: provide outstanding professional services and excellent products for clients at a reasonable price. The company now provides tax, auditing, and accounting services for a diverse range of clients in the Knoxville area. “I wanted to create an atmosphere where people feel like coming to work, and are proud of what they do.  Let’s be fair to our clients, and do the work well – I want every one of our employees to be happy when they walk in the door, and every one of our clients to be happy when they walk out of it.” 

While owning her own firm has presented many challenges, Hines and Company is thriving. Hines projects that she will add two more positions over the next year.  Those numbers could look better with the American Jobs Act.  According to Hines, the payroll tax cuts and expensing provisions in the President's plan to create jobs will "provide tremendous savings for us and allow us to potentially invest in new computer equipment."  More than that, according to Hines, these provisions will help her company attract new clients by freeing up the capital small businesses in the area have to invest. "It really changes the game for folks because it changes purchasing power – for a tax consulting service like ours, it might mean that more small businesses could afford our services.”

Related:
Learn more about President Obama's speech in Scranton, PA
This crafty Nevada business owner says the American Jobs Act would remove a roadblock to growth
NY CEO says America can't wait to address our economic problems
North Carolina entrepreneur says the American Jobs Act will help expand her business

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Presidential Proclamation — Critical Infrastructure Protection Month, 2011

Release Time: 
For Immediate Release

BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

A PROCLAMATION

From irrigation to the Internet, our Nation's critical infrastructure supports an incredible array of services and industries that are essential to our continued success and prosperity.  Critical infrastructure includes all systems and assets, both physical and virtual, that make vital contributions to our security, economic stability, public health, or safety.  This month, we affirm the fundamental importance of our critical infrastructure and recommit to preparing for, responding to, and recovering from hazardous events and emergencies efficiently and effectively.

My Administration is resolute in our dedication to a safe, secure future for our Nation.  Natural disasters, pandemic diseases, and acts of terrorism can pose serious risks to our critical infrastructure, and it is imperative we are prepared in the event of an emergency.  To reduce risks and improve our national preparedness, we are fortifying our partnerships with State, local, territorial, and tribal governments to close gaps in our protection programs and promote collaboration at all levels of government.  We are also engaging a wide variety of private stakeholders, including critical infrastructure owners and operators, to expand and reinforce critical infrastructure protection.  And, with the If You See Something, Say Something campaign, we are empowering individuals and communities across America to help improve public safety.  All of us have a role to play in strengthening our national security, and together, we are taking steps to foster a culture of resilience.

As we navigate new and uncertain challenges in the digital age, we must also address the growing threat cyber attacks present to our transportation networks, electricity grid, financial systems, and other assets and infrastructure.  Cybersecurity remains a priority for my Administration, and we are committed to protecting our critical infrastructure by taking decisive action against cyber threats.  To ensure the safety of our most vital operations, we are working to give public and private organizations the ability to obtain cybersecurity assistance quickly and effectively.  These efforts will bolster our ability to withstand any attack, whether virtual or physical.

During Critical Infrastructure Protection Month, we reflect on our responsibility to protect the vital systems and assets that sustain our country and our people.  Strengthening our national security and resilience is a task for all of us, and by promoting awareness and partnering with one another, we can make essential progress toward safe, secure, and prosperous horizons for every American.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim December 2011 as Critical Infrastructure Protection Month.  I call upon the people of the United States to recognize the importance of protecting our Nation's critical resources and to observe this month with appropriate events and training to enhance our national security and resilience.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this thirtieth day of November, in the year of our Lord two thousand eleven, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-sixth.

BARACK OBAMA

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By the Numbers: $1,500

$1500 tax cut

President Obama’s proposed payroll tax cut would put an extra $1,500 in the pockets of the typical American family that makes $50,000 a year.

But if Congress doesn’t act soon, the same family could see their taxes go up by $1,000.

The President was in Scranton, Pennsylvania today urging Congress to take action and extend the payroll tax cut. More than 6 million people in the state would see their taxes go up if they don’t.

Want to find out how you would be affected by President Obama’s payroll tax cut—or how much more you’ll pay if Congress doesn’t act? Check out our Payroll Tax Cut Calculator.

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Raising Healthy, Active Kids

Today, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke at the Partnership for a Healthier America Summit about the importance of helping our children lead healthier lives by encouraging them to become more active.

The First Lady said that while idea behind the Let’s Move campaign to end childhood obesity has taken off, particularly in terms of making sure kids have access to healthy food, there is still much progress to be made:

Since we launched “Let’s Move,” folks from every sector of society have been stepping up to help our kids lead healthier lives.

 Major food manufacturers are cutting sugar, salt and fat from their products.  Restaurants are revamping kids’ menus and loading them with healthier, fresher options.  Companies like Walgreens, SuperValu, Walmart, Calhoun’s Grocery are committing to build new stores and to sell fresh food in underserved communities all across this country.

Congress passed historic legislation to provide more nutritious school meals to millions of American children.  Our schools are growing gardens all over the place.  Cities and towns are opening farmers markets.  Congregations are holding summer nutrition programs for their kids.  Parents are reading those food labels, and they’re rethinking the meals and the snacks that they serve their kids.

 So while we still have a long way to go, we have seen so much good progress.  We’ve begun to have an impact on how, and what, our kids are eating every single day.  And that is so important.  It’s so important.

 But it’s not enough.  There is still more to do.  Because we all know that the problem isn’t just what’s happening at meal time or at snack time.  It’s also about how our kids are spending the rest of their time each and every day. It’s about how active our kids are.

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Remarks by the First Lady at the Partnership for a Healthier America’s Inaugural Building a Healthier Future Summit

Release Time: 
For Immediate Release

Washington, D.C.

11:52 A.M. EST 

MRS. OBAMA:  Thank you.  Thank you, everyone.  Please, please.  (Applause.)  Well, thank you all so much.  Please, please, rest yourselves.  I understand you’ve been working hard over these last couple of days.  (Laughter.)

It is such a tremendous pleasure and an honor to be here with all of you today.  I want to start by thanking Kayla, not just for that very kind introduction, but for her work.  I mean, we should all be like Kayla, right?  That’s what we’re trying to do.  Kayla, we are so proud of you.  Let’s give Kayla a wonderful round of applause.  (Applause.)

That’s why we’re all here, right?  It’s because of Kayla.

I also want to recognize Senator Bill Frist, Mayor Corey Booker, who have just been phenomenal Partnership for a Healthier America co-chairs.  They’ve been terrific.

I also have to recognize my dear friend, Jim Gavin, who’s the chair of the board, as well as Larry Soler, the CEO.  They have just been tremendous.

PHA is truly a driving force behind so much of the progress that we’ve made on behalf of our children.  And I am thrilled about the commitments they’ve announced today from organizations like the YMCA, Hyatt Hotels and so many others.  So I also want us to take some time to give all of them a round of applause.  (Applause.)

And finally, I want to thank all of you -– all of you here today:  the advocates, the activists, the business leaders and the experts who have been leading the charge for years to help our kids lead healthier lives. 

And I know that what you all do isn’t easy.  And I have to be honest, when I first decided to focus on the issue of childhood obesity, in the back of my mind I wondered whether it was really possible to make a difference.  I knew the conventional wisdom on the issue -– particularly when it comes to changing how and what our kids eat.

There’s the assumption that kids don’t like healthy food, so why should we bother trying to feed it to them.  There’s the belief that healthy food doesn’t sell so well, so companies will never change the products they offer.  There’s the sense that this problem is so big, and so entrenched, that no matter what we do, we’ll never be able to solve it.

But because of folks like all of you, over the past couple of years, we have begun to see a fundamental change in the conversation in this country about how we feed our kids.  Since we launched “Let’s Move,” folks from every sector of society have been stepping up to help our kids lead healthier lives.

Major food manufacturers are cutting sugar, salt and fat from their products.  Restaurants are revamping kids’ menus and loading them with healthier, fresher options.  Companies like Walgreens, SuperValu, Walmart, Calhoun’s Grocery are committing to build new stores and to sell fresh food in underserved communities all across this country.

Congress passed historic legislation to provide more nutritious school meals to millions of American children.  Our schools are growing gardens all over the place.  Cities and towns are opening farmers markets.  Congregations are holding summer nutrition programs for their kids.  Parents are reading those food labels, and they’re rethinking the meals and the snacks that they serve their kids.

So while we still have a long way to go, we have seen so much good progress.  We’ve begun to have an impact on how, and what, our kids are eating every single day.  And that is so important.  It’s so important.

But it’s not enough.  There is still more to do.  Because we all know that the problem isn’t just what’s happening at meal time or at snack time.  It’s also about how our kids are spending the rest of their time each and every day.

It’s about how active our kids are.  And that’s what I want to talk about today.  I want to talk about the crisis of inactivity that we see among our kids, and what each of us can do to start solving that problem. 

The fact is that, today, we may well be raising the most sedentary generation of kids in the history of this country.  Kids today reportedly spend an average of seven and a half hours a day watching TV, playing with cell phones, computer games, video games.  Only one-quarter of kids play outside each day — one-quarter of our kids play outside.  And that’s compared to three-quarters of kids just a generation ago.  And only 18 percent of high school students get the recommended one hour of physical activity a day.

And all of us know, we being of a certain generation, that it wasn’t always like this.  Many of you probably grew up just like I did.  Back then — way back then, way before Kayla was even a thought in anybody’s eye — (laughter) — remember how we would walk to school every day?  You would get to school and then you’d run around the playground before the bell rang.  You’d get to school early just to run around before the bell rang.

Then just a couple of hours later, we were back outside for recess — more running around.  And then after lunch, we had another recess, and then all of us, we all had regular P.E. classes.  And then once you got out of school, if you didn’t have homework, we spent hours riding bikes, jumping rope, playing ball, playing tag.  And you didn’t come home until dinner was ready.  And if your mother was anything like mine, she’d send you right back out.  (Laughter.)

Back then, kids were constantly in motion.  We rarely went more than a few hours without engaging in some kind of heart-pounding, sweat-inducing, active play. 

And that’s an important word:  play.  

Back then, play meant physical activity.  Sitting around watching TV didn’t count as playing.  Lounging around the house with your friends was not playing.  Back then, playing actually meant moving your body.

And today, we have an entirely different idea of what constitutes “play.”  These days, for many kids, play has become a fully sedentary activity.  Then urban sprawl and fears about safety often mean the only walking our kids do is out the front door to a bus or a car.

And cuts in recess, gym and sports programs mean a whole lot less running around during the school day.  Only half of our young people in this country have playgrounds or parks, activity centers, walking paths or sidewalks available in their neighborhoods — only half of our kids in this country.

And today, fewer than 4 percent of elementary schools, fewer than 8 percent of middle and junior high schools, and only about 2 percent of high schools even offer daily P.E. classes.  That’s what’s going on.  And with the rise of the Internet and 24/7 cable TV, there is always an opportunity to be entertained by something on a screen. 

Kids today can watch pretty much any show any time they want, day or night.  That wasn’t the case when we were growing up.  You had seven channels.  (Laughter.)  You had about three hours of cartoons and it was over.  (Laughter.)  But all of that is just too hard for kids to resist. 

But the fact is that kids’ bodies simply are not built for that kind of sedentary lifestyle.  For them, physical activity is critical.  We all know that.  It’s critical for building healthy bones and muscles.  It’s critical for maintaining healthy blood pressure and cholesterol.  And it’s critical for controlling anxiety and stress.  And when our kids aren’t active, we see the results in rising obesity and conditions like diabetes that used to only be seen in adults, and conditions that we all know are costly to treat. 

We see it in our schools, where overweight and obese kids are more likely to miss more than two weeks of school during an academic year.  And we know that when kids stay home from school, what does that mean?  Oftentimes parents stay home from work.  And for those of you from the business world, you know that all those missed days can really have an impact on your bottom line.  There’s also evidence that physical activity may affect academic performance. 

And believe it or not, we even see the effects in our military.  And I know that Bill Frist was here and he talked a bit about this as well, but right now, nearly 27 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds are too overweight to serve in our military.  And at one Army base that I visited, I learned that the recruits they see today are kids who were born back when public schools across the country started cutting physical education and sports.  These are the kids who are the product of those cuts. 

So after years of inactivity and poor nutrition, many are overweight, many are out of shape, and they’re more likely to injure themselves in basic training.  This is what the General told me.  So the Army is now spending millions of additional dollars a year in medical and dental costs just to get trainees combat-ready. 

So when we’re talking about getting kids running around and playing again, it is important to understand that this isn’t just about fun and games.  This isn’t a joke.  It’s about their health.  It’s about their success in school.  It’s about our economy.  It’s about our national security.

But as parents — and I know there are many parents in this room — we don’t need statistics to tell us that something is wrong.  We know our kids aren’t as active as they should be.  And if we’re being honest with ourselves, we know that we bear some responsibility for that.  Because so many parents today are juggling a million things at once.

They’re working full-time while raising kids.  Many are caring for aging parents.  Many are struggling to just pay the bills.  And much as we all hate to admit it, sometimes, on those Saturday afternoons when the kids are complaining that they’re bored, sometimes it’s just easier to give them permission to go watch TV, right?  I did that last weekend.  (Laughter.)  And we know that’s not good. 

We know we need to do things differently — not just as parents, but as a society.  We as a society need to redefine for our kids what play is.  We as a society need to make physical activity a part of our kids’ daily lives again, and we need to do it in a way that is easy, affordable and fun — not just for kids but for parents.  

And when I say “we as a society,” I mean that every single one of us has a role to play.  Because we know that the solution on this one is not going to come because government is going to tell people what to do.  It’s about each of us taking responsibility, making a difference however we can. 

So today, I want to call on all of you, and folks all across the country, to just step back and ask yourselves, “What more can I do to help our kids lead more active and healthy lives?”  I want you to ask yourselves what you can do to invest, or to innovate, or to inspire our kids to get out there and play again.

And when I say invest, I don’t just mean money.  I also mean time, and energy, and passion.  I’m talking about schools that have started running clubs and fitness competitions; schools that are working physical activity into classes ranging from music to math.  I’m talking about communities keeping the high school gym open on weekends or organizing volunteers to refurbish parks and playgrounds. 

I’m talking about faith leaders who are starting exercise ministries for families in their congregations.  I’m talking about businesses sponsoring youth sports leagues and helping their employees get active.  Because we know that when mom or dad starts getting in shape at work, that can have an impact on other members of the family at home.

And when I say innovate, I’m talking about new ideas and new technologies.  I’m talking about developing new toys that require active play; new video games that get kids moving their entire bodies, not just their thumbs, right?  New playground equipment that gets kids running and jumping and climbing. 

And finally, when I say inspire, I’m talking about all of us serving as role models for our kids — all of us.  Our pediatricians urging kids to keep active; educators teaching kids about nutrition; folks in the sports, media and entertainment industries promoting physical activity, and  making playing cool again — making playing cool again.

I want to emphasize that last point — the importance of really promoting physical activity to our kids.  Think for a minute of all the things we get our kids to do each day.  It shouldn’t be so hard to get them to run around and play, right?  This isn’t forcing them to eat their vegetables.  (Laughter.)  It’s getting them to go out there and have fun.  

And now, I just want to divert a little bit because I now have a quick video for you — I don’t do this a lot — to help illustrate my point.  So take it away. 

(The video is played.)

That’s Bishop Tutu.  (Laughter.)

That’s the First Lady of Mexico.  (Laughter.)

Big-time rush.  (Laughter.)  Very cute.  (Laughter and applause.)

So as you can see, I’m pretty much willing to make a complete fool out of myself to get our kids moving.  (Laughter.)  But there is a method to my madness.  There’s a reason why I’ve been out there jumping rope and hula hooping and dancing to Beyoncé, whatever it takes.  (Laughter.)  It’s because I want kids to see that there are all kinds of ways to be active.  And if I can do it, anybody can do it. 

I want them to understand that being active can be fun, because we know that we as adults and as parents, we are our kids’ first and best role models.  As much as they don’t act like they’re listening to us, they really are.  And we can’t tell them to run around outside when we’re lying on the couch watching TV.  So we need to get ourselves active and we need to take our kids with us.

And we don’t need any kind of fancy equipment or uniforms.  That’s the other point.  It can be as simple as going for a walk together or just turning on the radio and dancing around in the living room.  And ultimately, that’s what gives me such hope around this issue, the fact that at this very moment, each of us — each of us already has the power to start solving this problem for ourselves in our own homes, in our own communities, without spending a single dime. 

And if we can get major grocery chains to build supermarkets in underserved neighborhoods, if we can get major restaurant chains to improve their menus and food manufacturers to offer better choices, then I am confident that we can get our kids up and playing just a little bit more.  I know this is something we can do, because the truth is that kids want to be active.  They want it so desperately from the time they’re little.  They want to move.  They want to explore.  They want to run and skip and learn new skills. 

So it’s up to all of us to tap into that innate desire for active play.  And that’s exactly what we’ll be doing in the coming months through “Let’s Move” and the Partnership for a Healthier America.  We will be offering wonderful new tools and information for parents to figure out how they can start getting their kids on track.  We’ll continue promoting our President’s Active Lifestyle Award to help kids to take charge and build healthy habits.  And so far, more than 1 million kids have earned this award by exercising an hour a day, five days a week for six consecutive weeks.

We’re going to keep working with our mayors to get them to improve access to play in their communities.  We’re going to keep working with schools to increase activity during the day, during the school day.  We’re going to work with sports leagues and celebrities and businesses to inspire our kids to get active, and so much more.

Every step we take can make such a difference in our kids’ lives.  And I have the good fortune of seeing that week after week in the letters that I get.  I get so many letters from kids all across the country who are excited about “Let’s Move” and they’re eager to share their stories.

One of those letters that really stood out for me came from a young woman named Samantha.  And Samantha is 15 years old and, for a long time, she shared with me that she struggled with her weight.  She was diagnosed with asthma and was in danger of developing diabetes.  But finally, Samantha took charge and she reached out to an adult that she trusted.  It happened to be her health teacher.  And together, she shared with me how they developed a plan to help Samantha get healthy. 

And she told me that she started small.  She started watching what she ate.  She joined a softball team and a cardio club at her school.  And she said that as she got healthier, she gained more confidence.  And in her letter, she told me that she’s been so successful that other people have actually asked her to help them get fit and healthy. 

And all it took for Samantha was one caring adult and a couple of opportunities for active play, and this young woman was able to regain control of her health.  So just imagine if we could have that kind of impact in every school and every community in America.  And just imagine how many of our kids we could help.  Imagine how many lives we would transform.

And like anything, this is not going to be easy and it will not happen overnight.  This is going to be an ongoing process, one that will unfold over generations.  And that is why the Partnership for a Healthier America is so critical.  It has just been at the core of everything we do.   

You see, I’m not going to be here forever and neither are any of you.  And I want to make sure that the work that we’ve begun and the progress we’ve made will continue not just for the length of this administration, but until the problem is solved.  And that is PHA’s mission.

And if we succeed, we won’t just raise this generation of children to be healthier adults.  You see, what you all understand is that when we instill healthy habits in our kids today, when we teach them to eat well and stay active today, that affects how they’ll raise their own children years from now.  That affects the habits that they’ll teach them and the food they’ll feed them and how healthy all of our grandkids will be.  And that can continue on throughout the generations.
 
That’s what we’re doing here.  We’re impacting generations.  That is the kind of impact we can have, one that will last long after all of us are gone.  So that’s why I keep traveling around the country, shining a spotlight on programs that are making a difference for our kids.  And as you saw in that video, I will try just about anything to inspire kids to be active.  And I am looking for real partners in that effort, I really am.

So if any of you come up with good ideas and you can translate them into effective programs, I will be there to dance, to jump, to throw, to kick — whatever you can imagine as long as it passes security approval.  (Laughter.)  But I will be there with you to help highlight that work.

And together, I am confident that we will solve this problem.  You see, I may have started out my remarks today talking about the doubts I had when we first launched “Let’s Move.”  But I think the last couple of years have shown us that we live in a country where we care deeply about our kids.  We do, and that is such a beautiful thing to see.   

And when we educate people about this issue, they want to step up.  They want to make a difference.  And if you have any doubts about that, if any of you have any doubts about what we as a country can accomplish when we really put our minds to it just look at what we’ve done these past couple of years.  Just look at what all of you have done.  Just look around this room at the leaders from all across the country, from every sector of society.  We couldn’t have imagined this room would exist today just a year ago.  

We still have a long way to go, yes.  But all of you and all that you’ve done are a testament to what we can achieve with enough passion, determination and inspiration and a little imagination.  So I want to thank you all from the bottom of my heart.  Let’s keep going.  Let’s keep moving.  Let’s keep moving forward.  I am so proud of the work that all of you have done.  And I truly look forward to all that we’re going to accomplish in the months and years ahead.

Congratulations.  Congratulations, PHA.  Congratulations to all of you.  Thank you all and God bless.

END
12:19 P.M. EST

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Holidays at the White House

Photos from the archives of past holidays at the White House.

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From the Archives: First Families Celebrate the Holidays at the White House

President Lyndon B. Johnson seated in chair, amongst his family (L-R) Lady Bird Johnson, Lynda Johnson Robb (holding infant Lucinda Robb), Luci Johnson Nugent, and Lyn Nugent. Mary Rather (next to Christmas tree) and two other people in background. The dog Yuki is in the foreground.

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We Can’t Wait: New Steps Encourage Doctors and Hospitals to Use Health IT to Lower Costs, Improve Quality, Create Jobs

When doctors and hospitals use health information technology (IT), patients get better care and we can all save money. This results in less paperwork for billing, medical records, and prescribing; easier coordination of care among doctors, nurses, and pharmacists in hospitals and outpatient settings; and better reporting on quality of care. Thanks to President Obama’s leadership, the number of physicians using this important technology to help patients get better care and save money has more than doubled, from 17 percent to 34 percent, since 2008. And we can’t wait to do more. 

Today, Secretary Sebelius announced that we are making it easier for doctors and other health professionals to adopt health IT and receive incentive payments that were made available under the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act. At the same time, we remain vigilant in ensuring your health data remains private, confidential and secure. 

Here’s how it works:

  • The HITECH Act offers doctors and hospitals the opportunity to earn financial incentives from Medicare and Medicaid if they show that they have adopted health IT and are using it to make a meaningful difference in patient care.
  • Under the current rules, providers who adopt health IT this year, and register through the end of February, must meet new standards for using health IT in 2013.  If they do not adopt health IT until 2012, they don’t have to meet the new standards until 2014, and are still eligible for the same amount of incentive payment.
  • To spur greater innovation and improvement, Secretary Sebelius announced that she intends to adjust the deadline for meeting the new standards for providers that start this year to 2014, removing the disincentive for providers to adopt and use health IT right away.

During her visit today to Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland OH, Secretary Sebelius will also release new 2011 CDC data that show that over half of office-based physicians say they intend to take advantage of the incentive payments available for doctors and hospitals that meaningfully use health IT. That’s impressive progress, but we know we can do more to improve the health care system through the use of health IT. 

And we know that health IT can have a real impact on the lives of patients nationwide. The Sacramento Business Journal recently reported on one way health IT is improving care:

Evelyn Lyons gets up hungry and wants to eat — but is supposed to check her blood sugar first.

Daily testing was hit-or-miss until she agreed to take text messages at 7:30 every morning to remind her do the test, record the results and take her medicine.

Lyons is participating in a pilot program that helps diabetes patients and their doctors at Sacramento Family Medical Center manage a chronic condition that affects one in 12 Americans. It’s about one in seven at Sacramento Family Medical, which operates nine clinics in the region that serve patients on Medi-Cal, the government health care program for the poor.

Launched in August, the program has had a few bumps along the way, but it’s beginning to change behavior.

“I’m glad to be part of it,” Lyons said. “Before, I wasn’t taking it as serious as I should.”

Ultimately, the program is expected to lower costs.

We also know that this work won’t just make health care better – it will also create jobs. More than 50,000 health IT-related jobs have been created since the enactment of the HITECH Act.  And the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the number of health IT jobs will rise 20 percent from 2008-2018, faster than the average for all occupations in that period.  

Our Administration has launched workforce development programs that are training more than 10,000 students for careers in health IT and over 1700 are expected to graduate by July 2013.  When they graduate, they will have training to get quality jobs and the work they will do will make the health care system better for all of us. 

Read more about  how health IT can lead to safer, better, and more efficient care

For more information about the Medicare and Medicaid HER Incentive Programs

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Statement by NSC Spokesman Tommy Vietor on Turkish Sanctions Against Syria

Release Time: 
For Immediate Release

We commend the Turkish government for its announcement of economic sanctions and other measures against the Syrian regime.  The leadership shown by Turkey in response to the brutality and violation of the fundamental rights of the Syrian people will isolate the Assad regime and send a strong message to Assad and his circle that their actions are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.  The measures announced by the Turkish government today will undoubtedly increase the pressure on the Syrian regime, and we continue to call on other governments to join the chorus of condemnation and pressure against the Assad regime so that the peaceful and democratic aspirations of the Syrian people can be realized. President Obama has coordinated closely with Prime Minister Erdogan throughout the crisis in Syria and will continue to do so going forward.

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