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White House Aide To Skeptical Journalists: No Contingency Plan On Health Law

White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest in February 2012.
Susan Walsh
White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest in February 2012.

No matter how many times he said it Wednesday, the White House press corps just didn't seem to be buying deputy press secretary Josh Earnest's assertion that Obama administration officials weren't working on contingency plans just in case the Supreme Court strikes down the Affordable Care Act.

They also weren't taking at face value Earnest's defense of Solicitor General Donald Verrilli's performance on behalf of the administration Tuesday which has been widely criticized as nervous, halting and all-around less-than-inspiring.

Still, the job of a White House press secretary is to stay on message no matter how disbelieving the journalists before you. Earnest did what he was paid to do.

For instance, here's a representative exchange with one reporter after others had already asked if it was really true that the White House wasn't readying plans for what it would do if the court invalidates the law when it renders its opinion, which is expected in June:

REPORTER: Thanks. Following up on one of Ann's questions, are you saying that there are no conversations in the White House about what you would do if this law were fully or partly overturned?

MR. EARNEST: What I'm saying is that we believe the law is constitutional and that we are focused on implementing all of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

REPORTER: Well, then, let me ask, are there any conversations going on? I mean --

MR. EARNEST: Well, it's difficult for me to speak for --

REPORTER: I understand you're focused on that. But I mean, I think the question that she was getting at and I would like to get at is are you also doing a little bit of contingency planning just in case?

MR. EARNEST: We're not. No.

REPORTER: (Off mic) — can we follow up?


REPORTER: Either on the policy side or on the political messaging side?

MR. EARNEST: That's correct. I mean, we're confident that — we're confident that the legislation is constitutional. We are focused on implementing the — all the provisions of the law, as I've described, because there are important benefits that will be realized by the American people. That's where our focus is. You know, if there is a reason or a need for us to consider some contingencies down the line, then we'll do it then. But as I said, it's foolhardy to try to predict the outcome of this decision based solely on the questions of the — of the judges. I'm not going to — I'm certainly not going to do that from here.

It went on like that for a while, with reporters circling back and Earnest circling away.

His parrying of questions about Verrilli's performance Tuesday was similar. Reporters tried a number of times to get Earnest to concede the conventional wisdom that the solicitor general didn't wow the world with his presence or responses to the justices' questions. Earnest refused to give them that satisfaction.

REPORTER: When you say a talented advocate and made a persuasive case, how does that square with the audio of the solicitor general coughing and stammering and seeming to struggle answering questions?

MR. EARNEST: Well, Ed, I know you're a little bit of a — of a college basketball fan. And I know that there have been a lot of people who have had a lot of commentary about the — about the solicitor general's performance. I'm looking forward to tuning into the semifinal games this weekend; I assume that you are too.

And when we tune in, we're going to hear Clark Kellogg sitting on the sidelines delivering some color commentary of the game. I'm sure it will be analytical. I'm sure it will be insightful. It'll probably even be entertaining. But it's not going to change the outcome.

REPORTER: OK, fair point, but it's not just the commentary or the pundits. It's the actual audio that people are hearing. Even you can hear it. People in the White House listen to him stammering, struggling — it's not punditry. It's actual listening to the audio.

And to Jessica's question earlier, you don't respond to every question we have. And you guys pride yourself --

MR. EARNEST: I'm doing my best.

REPORTER: No, no, and you guys pride yourself on saying, we don't listen to the cable chatter out there.

MR. EARNEST: Well --

REPORTER: There was cable chatter yesterday saying that he bombed. And you felt compelled to say, well, no, he did a great job. Did — aren't you on the defensive about that? Did you feel pressure to defend him?

MR. EARNEST: Not at all. What Mr. Verrilli delivered was a very solid performance before the Supreme Court. That's just a fact. If you guys — if — you know, if there are questions about that, I'm happy to answer those questions.

We feel — we feel good about his performance. And like I said, there are a lot of people who are going to sit on the sidelines and weigh in with their commentary and probably try to — (inaudible) — style points to one advocate or the other.

What we're confident in is we're confident that this is a law that, when you examine the constitutional ramifications of implementing the law, that you'll find that the law is constitutional.

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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