For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
December 20, 2004

President Holds Press Conference
Room 450
Dwight DC Eisenhower Executive Office Building

10:32 A.M. EST

Now, I will be glad to answer some questions. Hunt.

(cut first questions)

Gregory.

Q Mr. President, thank you. A year ago we were in this room -- almost to the day -- and you were heralding the capture of Saddam Hussein and announcing the end of Baathists tyranny in Iraq. A year later, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee in the Senate said, after returning from Iraq, that -- talking about Iraqi troops -- the raw material is lacking in the willpower and commitment after they receive military training. At the same time here at home a higher percentage of Americans is less confident of a successful conclusion in Iraq -- 48 percent less confident to 41 percent. What's going wrong?

(cut answer)

Q What about that percentage, though, 48 percent to 41 percent? More Americans losing confidence --

THE PRESIDENT: You know, polls change, Dave. Polls go up. Polls go down. I can understand why people -- they're looking on your TV screen and seeing indiscriminate bombing where thousands of innocent, or hundreds of innocent Iraqis are getting killed, and they're saying whether or not we're able to achieve the objective. What they don't see are the small businesses starting; 15 of the 18 provinces are relatively stable, where progress is being made; life is better now than it was under Saddam Hussein. And so there is -- there are very hopeful signs.

But no question about it, the bombers are having an effect. You know, these people are targeting innocent Iraqis. They're trying to shake the will of the Iraqi people, and frankly, trying to shake the will of the American people. And car bombs that destroy young children or car bombs that indiscriminately bomb in religious sites are effective propaganda tools. But we must meet the objective, which is to help the Iraqis defend themselves, and at the same time, have a political process to go forward. It's in our long-term interests that we succeed, and I'm confident we will.

I saw an interesting comment today by somebody I think in the Karbala area or Najaf area who said, look, what they're trying to do -- "they" being the terrorists -- are trying to create sectarian violence. He said, they're not going to intimidate us from voting; people want to vote; people want to live in a free society. And our job in these tough times is to work and complete our strategy.

Yes, John. And then John.

Q Mr. President, thank you.

THE PRESIDENT: I had to work my way through all the mass medias.

John.

(cut)

Q Thank you, Mr. President. You've made Social Security reform the top of your domestic agenda for a second term. You've been talking extensively about the benefits of private accounts. But by most estimations, private accounts may leave something for young workers at the end, but wouldn't do much to solve the overall financial problem with Social Security.

And I'm just wondering, as you're promoting these private accounts, why aren't you talking about some of the tough measures that may have to be taken to preserve the solvency of Social Security, such as increasing the retirement age, cutting benefits, or means testing for Social Security?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, I appreciate that question. First of all, let me put the Social Security issue in proper perspective. It is a very important issue -- but it's not the only issue, very important issue we'll be dealing with. I expect the Congress to bring forth meaningful tort reform. I want the legal system reformed in such a way that we are competitive in the world. I'll be talking about the budget, of course; there is a lot of concern in the financial markets about our deficits, short-term and long-term deficits. The long-term deficit, of course, is caused by some of the entitlement programs, the unfunded liabilities inherent in our entitlement programs. I will continue to push on an education agenda. There's no doubt in my mind that the No Child Left Behind Act is meaningful, real, reform that is having real results. And I look forward to strengthening No Child Left Behind. Immigration reform is a very important agenda item, as we move forward.

But Social Security, as well, is a big item. And I campaigned on it, as you're painfully aware, since you had to suffer through many of my speeches. I didn't duck the issue like others have done have in the past. I said this is a vital issue and we need to work together to solve it. Now, the temptation is going to be, by well-meaning people such as yourself, John, and others here, as we run up to the issue to get me to negotiate with myself in public; to say, you know, what's this mean, Mr. President, what's that mean. I'm not going to do that. I don't get to write the law. I will propose a solution at the appropriate time, but the law will be written in the halls of Congress. And I will negotiate with them, with the members of Congress, and they will want me to start playing my hand: Will you accept this? Will you not accept that? Why don't you do this hard thing? Why don't you do that? I fully recognize this is going to be a decision that requires difficult choices, John. Inherent in your question is, do I recognize that? You bet I do. Otherwise, it would have been.

And so I am -- I just want to try to condition you. I'm not doing a very good job, because the other day in the Oval when the press pool came in I was asked about this -- a series of question on -- a question on Social Security with these different aspects to it. And I said, I'm not going to negotiate with myself. And I will negotiate at the appropriate time with the law writers. And so thank you for trying. The principles I laid out in the course of the campaign, and the principles we laid out at the recent economic summit are still the principles I believe in. And that is nothing will change for those near our Social Security; payroll -- I believe you were the one who asked me about the payroll tax, if I'm not mistaken -- will not go up.

And I know there's a big definition about what that means. Well, again, I will repeat. Don't bother to ask me. Or you can ask me. I shouldn't -- I can't tell you what to ask. It's not the holiday spirit. (Laughter.) It is all part of trying to get me to set the parameters apart from the Congress, which is not a good way to get substantive reform done.

(cut).

And so for a period of time, we're going to have to explain to members of Congress that crisis is here. It's a lot less painful to act now than if we wait.

Q Can I ask a follow up?

THE PRESIDENT: No. (Laughter.) Otherwise, it will make everybody else jealous, and I don't want that to happen.

Angle.

Q Thank you, sir. Mr. President, on that point, there is already a lot of opposition to the idea of personal accounts, some of it fairly entrenched among the Democrats. I wonder what your strategy is to try to convince them to your view? And, specifically, they say that personal accounts would destroy Social Security. You argue that it would help save the system. Can you explain how?

THE PRESIDENT: I will try to explain how without negotiating with myself. It's a very tricky way to get me to play my cards. I understand that. I think what you -- people ought to do is to go look at the Moynihan Commission report. The other day, in the discussions at the Economic Summit, we discussed the role of a personal account. In other words, what -- how a personal account would work. And that is, the people could set aside a negotiated amount of their own money in an account that would be managed by that person, but under serious guidelines. As I said, you can't use the money to go to the lottery, or take it to the track. There would be -- it's like the -- some of the guidelines that some of the thrift savings plans right here in the federal government.

(cut)

Okay, let's get away from the media. Yes, Carl, thank you. I accused Carl of trying to look like Johnny Damon. (Laughter.)

Q Mr. President, it's -- 140,000 Americans are spending this Christmas in Iraq, as you know, some of them their second Christmas there. Now, you outlined your vision for Iraq, both in your statement and in response to David Gregory. My question is, how long do you think it will take that vision to be realized and how long will those troops be there?

THE PRESIDENT: No, it's a very legitimate question, Carl, and I get asked that by family members I meet with -- and people say, how long do you think it will take. And my answer is -- you know, we would like to achieve our objective as quickly as possible. It is our commander -- again -- I can -- the best people that reflect the answer to that question are people like Abizaid and Casey, who are right there on the ground. And they are optimistic and positive about the gains we're making.

(cut)

Ed.

Q Good morning, Mr. President. I'd like to ask you on Social Security, you said that you don't like to come to the table with -- having negotiated with yourself. Yet, you have ruled out tax cuts and no cuts in benefits for the retired and the near retired. I wonder how you square that statement. And also, what do you -- in your mind, what is near retired?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, well, that's going to fall in the negotiating with myself category. But, look, it was very important for me in the course of the campaign, and it's going to very important for all of us who feel like we have a problem that needs to be fixed, to assure Americans who are on Social Security that nothing will change.

Part of the problem, politically, with this issue in the past, Ed, as you know, is the minute you bring up Social Security reform, people go running around the country saying -- really, what he says is he's going to take away your check -- or that which you have become dependent upon will no longer be available for you to live on. And so, therefore, part of setting the stage, or laying the groundwork for there to be a successful reform effort is assuring our seniors that they just don't have to worry about anything. When they hear the debate that is taking place on the floor of the Congress, they just need to know that the check they're getting won't change; that promises will be met; that, you know, if there is to be an increase in their check they'll get their check. In other words, the formula that has enabled them to the -- to a certain extent -- the formula they're relying on won't change, let me put it that way. I was trying to be really brilliant.

Now, what was the other part of your question?

Q If I could just follow-up. Why --

THE PRESIDENT: Is this a follow-up or part of the question?

Q You asked, though. (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: Okay, yes, you're right. (Laughter.)

Q Why did you choose to take on Social Security and not Medicare, which some people believe is a worse problem?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I appreciate that, Ed, but we did take on Medicare. And it was the Medicare Reform Bill that really began to change Medicare as we knew it. In other words, it introduced market forces for the first time; it provided a prescription drug coverage for our seniors, which I believe will be cost effective. I recognize some of the actuaries haven't come to that conclusion yet. But the logic is irrefutable. It seems like to me, that if the government is willing to pay $100,000 for heart surgery, but not a dime for the prescription drug that would prevent the heart surgery from happening in the first place, aren't we saving money when we provide the money necessary to prevent the surgery from being needed in the first place. I think we are. That's one of the differences of opinion that I had with the actuaries.

I readily concede I'm out of my lane. I'm not pretending to be an actuary. But I know that we made progress in modernizing the Medicare system, and there's more work to be done. No question about it. But as you know, it's a three-year phase-in on Medicare -- or two-year phase-in from now. And in 2006, the prescription drug coverage will become available for our seniors. And I look forward to working with members of Congress to make sure the Medicare system is solvent in the long run.

Let's have somebody new. Mike, you want to -- no, you're not new. (Laughter.) That is a cheap shot. Go ahead -- that is generous.

Q Thank you. (Laughter.) Yes, Mr. President --

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, Mike, welcome.

Q -- since early in your first term you've talked about immigration reform, but, yet, people in your own party on the Hill seem opposed to this idea. And you've gotten opposition even on the other side. Do you plan to expend some of your political capital this time to see this through?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, I appreciate that -- well, first of all, welcome. I'd like to welcome all the new faces -- some prettier than others, I might add. (Laughter.) Yes, I intend to work with members of Congress to get something done. I think this is a -- a issue that will make it easier for us to enforce our borders. And I believe it's an issue that is -- that will show the -- if when we get it right, the compassion, heart of American people. And no question, it's a tough issue, just like some of the other issues we're taking on. But my job is to confront tough issues and to ask Congress to work together to confront tough issues.

(cut)

Yes, sir. Let us take it overseas, across the pond.

Q Thank you very much, Mr. President. I wonder whether I could ask you two central questions about the war on terrorism. The first one is, do you have a sense of where Osama bin Laden is, and why the trail on him seems to have gone cold? And, secondly, how concerned are you by the reports of torture, to use your word, the interminable delays to justice, for the detainees held in Guantanamo, and how much that damages America's reputation as a nation which stands for liberty and justice internationally?

THE PRESIDENT: Right, thank you. If I had to guess, I would guess that Osama bin Laden is in a remote region on the Afghan-Pakistan border. But I don't have to guess at the damage we have done to his organization. Many of his senior operators have been killed or detained. Pakistan government has been aggressive in pursuit of al Qaeda targets in Waziristan.

And I appreciate the work of President Musharraf. He came the other day, on a Saturday morning to the White House and it was an opportunity to thank him once again for some of the bold steps he's taken. And al Qaeda is dangerous, no question about it, but we've got a good strategy, and it's a strategy that requires cooperation with other nations, and the cooperation has been great when it comes to sharing intelligence and cutting off finances, and arresting people, or killing people. We'll stay on the hunt.

In terms of the second part of your -- oh, the damage. Look, we are a nation of laws and to the extent that people say, well, America is no longer a nation of laws -- that does hurt our reputation. But I think it's an unfair criticism. As you might remember, our courts have made a ruling, they looked at the jurisdiction, the right of people in Guantanamo to have habeas review, and so we're now complying with the court's decisions. We want to fully vet the court decision, because I believe I have the right to set up military tribunals. And so the law is working to determine what Presidential powers are available and what's not available. We're reviewing the status of the people in Guantanamo on a regular basis. I think 200 and some-odd have been released. But you've got to understand the dilemma we're in, these are people that got scooped up off a battlefield, attempting to kill U.S. troops. I want to make sure before they're released that they don't come back to kill again.

I think it's important to let the world know that we fully understand our obligations in a society that honors rule of law to do that. But I also have an obligation to protect the American people, to make sure we understand the nature of the people that we hold, whether or not there's possible intelligence we can gather from them that we could then use to protect us. So we'll continue to work the issue hard.

Let's see, here, yes, Hutch. Go head and yell it out, Hutch.

Q Going for another new face, huh?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes. (Laughter.)

Q I'd like to go back to Secretary Rumsfeld --

THE PRESIDENT: It's not a pretty face. (Laughter.)

Q Thank you. (Laughter.) You talked about the big picture elements of the Secretary's job, but did you find it offensive that he didn't take the time to personally sign condolence letters to the families of troops killed in Iraq? And, if so, why is that an offense that you're willing to overlook?

THE PRESIDENT: Listen, I know how -- I know Secretary Rumsfeld's heart. I know how much he cares for the troops. He and his wife go out to Walter Reed in Bethesda all the time to provide comfort and solace. I have seen the anguish in his -- or heard the anguish in his voice and seen his eyes when we talk about the danger in Iraq, and the fact that youngsters are over there in harm's way. And he is -- he's a good, decent man. He's a caring fellow. Sometimes perhaps is demeanor is rough and gruff, but beneath that rough and gruff, no-nonsense demeanor is a good human being who cares deeply about the military, and deeply about the grief that war causes.

Deans.

Q Mr. President, I want to kick forward to the elections in Gaza in a few weeks if I could, please. As you know, Presidents back to Carter have searched for a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Your dad worked hard for it. Your predecessor said once it was like going to the dentist without getting your gums numbed. I'm wondering what great --

THE PRESIDENT: Guy had a way with words. (Laughter.)

Q I'm wondering, sir, what lesson you draw, though, from their efforts, how you think the war in Iraq may, at this point, have improved prospects for a Mideast peace? And whether you think you might sit in that diplomatic dental chair yourself this year?

THE PRESIDENT: I've been in the diplomatic dental chair for four years. This is an issue we talk about a lot, but it became apparent to me that peace would never happen so long as the -- the interlocutor in the peace process was not really dedicated to peace, or dedicated to state.

(cut)

All right, happy holidays.

END 11:25 A.M. EST


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