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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
January 18, 2005

Press Briefing by Scott McClellan
The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

Play Video  Video (Real)

12:28 P.M. EST

MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon. Let me update you on one more leader call from this morning. The President spoke to King Abdullah of Jordan this morning. The two leaders discussed the upcoming election in Iraq and the importance of encouraging the broadest participation possible by the Iraqi people in the election. They also discussed the Israel-Palestinian situation and the need to end terrorist attacks. Both also expressed the need to help the new government of President Abbas to move forward as it builds the institutions necessary for a viable democratic state to emerge.

And just one more thing before we begin. The President is honored to be given the opportunity by the American people to continue serving for another four years. He is looking forward to the inaugural and taking the oath of office this week. The inaugural theme is celebrating freedom, honoring service, and it kicks off today with an event honoring our men and women in uniform. The President can think of no better way to begin the inaugural than by giving thanks for our freedom and thanking those who make it possible. So he looks forward to this afternoon's event. He also looks forward to this evening's event, when we celebrate -- have a concert for America's youth and the theme of that is "A Call To Service." It's an opportunity to herald our youth for their volunteer service participation in their neighborhoods and communities, and also to encourage wider participation by our youth in their neighborhoods and communities to help those who are in need.

And with that, I will be glad to go to your questions.

Q There's a poll out that says the President begins his second term -- that he does not have a clear mandate as he begins his second term. What do you think about that?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think there's a lot of strong support in those surveys for a lot of what we are doing. These are hopeful and historic times in which we live, and the President will be talking this week in his inaugural address about the big challenges we face and the opportunity that those challenges present for us to really work together to achieve big things for the world and for this nation. And so he will talk about the importance of advancing freedom to achieve peace abroad and security at home. And he'll also talk about the importance of extending freedom here in America by building an ownership society. The President wants people to have more control over their own lives and more say over their own lives, and building an ownership society is one of the key principles that will guide us as we move forward into a second term.

But this is a week to really bring people together around the common challenges that we face and to talk about the ideals and values that we cherish and hold so dearly.

Q On Inauguration Day, what are the President's -- what's going to be his first official act? Is he issuing any executive orders? Do you anticipate that there will be any Cabinet members to be sworn in?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'll be updating you as the week goes on, and obviously, there are a number of Cabinet nominees that have been going through confirmation hearings. I expect that the President, in the near future, will participate in ceremonial swearing-ins for those Cabinet members once they're confirmed by the Senate. I also expect that some of those Cabinet members will be sworn into office prior to that so that they can get about doing the American people's business.

But in terms of Thursday, we've provided you a list of the President's activities for that day, and we'll keep you updated as we get closer. I know that he begins the day with a prayer service over at St. John's Church, just across the street here, just across Pennsylvania Avenue. And so he's really looking forward to that day. He's excited about the opportunities we have before us.

Q Is there anything beyond the pageantry, I mean, is there anything substantive that he's doing?

MR. McCLELLAN: Giving a speech. I think it's a very substantive speech that you will enjoy listening to. But I will keep you posted on his schedule.

Q Does the President think that advancing freedom through war is the only way you can do it?

MR. McCLELLAN: Absolutely not. And, of course, that's --

Q Does he intend to continue that MO?

MR. McCLELLAN: Absolutely not, Helen. In fact, we are working in a number of ways to support the advance of freedom throughout the world. The President believes that all people yearn to live in freedom. And we will always stand on the side of those who seek freedom, and the United States will be there to support them in their efforts. One of the key priorities of this administration is continuing to advance freedom in the broader Middle East. I think you've heard Dr. Rice talk about that --

Q Will he denounce the use of war to perpetuate freedom?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think you've heard the President talk -- you heard Condi Rice talk about it in her confirmation hearings early today. War is always a last resort. But there are many ways we're supporting the advance of freedom, and that includes efforts to expand freedom in the broader Middle East. It's a dangerous region of the world that for too long has only known tyranny and oppression and hatred, and we want to bring hope and opportunity and freedom to the people of that region. There are many hopeful signs that we are seeing about advancing freedom in the world. We've seen elections take place in Afghanistan. We've seen elections take place for a new Palestinian president. And we are seeing elections move forward in Iraq. For the first time, the Iraqi people are going to be able to choose their leaders. This is a historic --

Q At a very heavy price.

MR. McCLELLAN: -- this is a historic moment for the Iraqi people, and we are there to support them in those efforts.

Q Scott, you told us about two calls the President made today to world leaders, to Prime Minister Allawi, of Iraq, and to King Abdullah, of Jordan. And in both of them you said he encouraged those leaders to get the maximum participation in this election in Iraq going. Is that a sign the President is concerned that --

MR. McCLELLAN: No. In fact, I don't know if I'd describe it the same way you did. What they talked about was they're -- they are all committed to making sure that there is as broad participation as possible in the upcoming election. This is the first election of a number to come over the course of the next year. It's the first step in the election process on the path to a democratic future for the Iraqi people. And that's a significant achievement in and of itself, that for the first time, the Iraqi people will be holding elections to freely choose their leaders. And this is a transitional government.

But Prime Minister Allawi has been reaching out to all sectors of the Iraqi community to encourage broad participation in the elections. This is -- it's important that we do everything we can to support the Iraqi people to have the best possible election. And that's what we'll continue to do.

Q It does sound a bit, Scott, as if you're trying to lower expectations for this election. You're saying, it's the first of a series, it's a first step, it's not perfect, try for the best election possible under the circumstances. Is that because the President and his team are concerned that this isn't going to be a widely -- not a wide participation in this election, it might not be everything that he might have hoped for six weeks -- six months ago?

MR. McCLELLAN: As I said, the fact that the Iraqi people are having elections is a significant achievement. A year ago, people would have looked at that as not very realistic. And now we are seeing that for the first time, they are going to be able to freely choose their leaders. And this is an important step on the path to democracy, but there are other elections that will take place over the course of the next year. They will ratify the constitution later this year, once it is adopted by that transitional government. The transitional government will be putting in place the leaders for that transition period to a permanent government. And then, at the end of the year, they're going to be voting on a permanent government.

And it's important -- the stakes are high in Iraq. I think everybody recognizes that. The international community recognizes how high the stakes are; the Iraqi people do; and the terrorists recognize how high the stakes are. And this election taking place will be an important step to defeating the ambitions of those who want to return to the past of oppression and tyranny, and it will be an important step on the path to a democratic and peaceful future for the Iraqi people. I think everybody recognizes that it won't be a perfect election, but we want to ensure the best possible election. Our own democracy has taken time to build. Democracies take time to emerge and build. But we'll be there, every step of the way, to support the Iraqi people as they assume more and more responsibility for their future.

Q You said you look at it in those terms. Is it fair to say that no matter what happens in Iraq on January 30th, whatever the turnout might be -- low, high -- whatever the level of violence, this President will declare it a success?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we'll see what happens. We can talk about it at that point, once the elections have taken place. Many people didn't think elections could take place in Afghanistan, and now they have an elected President representing the Afghan people. We are moving forward to support the Iraqi people.

The Iraqi people want to vote. They want to choose their leaders. They want to assume more responsibility for their future. The United Nations election advisor, just the other day, said that the elections are on track, everything is on track. And he talked about the importance of moving forward on these elections. I think everybody in the international community understands the importance of moving forward with the Iraqi people on this election. But this is the first step. But it is a significant achievement, the fact that the Iraqi people will be holding elections to freely choose their leaders.

Q Scott, from the President's conversations with Allawi, as well as King Abdullah, what is the administration's understanding of their role as Middle East leaders? Is the President satisfied with their participation in the Iraq elections?

MR. McCLELLAN: With their participation? Well, Prime Minister Allawi is very involved in those elections. He is someone who is a strong leader, who is firmly committed to helping the Iraqi people build a democratic and peaceful future, and someone who's committed to the rule of law and self-governance. And the President appreciates the efforts of people like Prime Minister Allawi and King Abdullah and other leaders in the region and elsewhere who understand the importance of supporting the Iraqi people as they move forward on holding elections.

You're seeing in news reports of how strongly the Iraqi people feel about being given the opportunity to vote, and they want to vote as soon as possible. And you're seeing news articles covering how ex-patriots across the world are wanting to go to great lengths just to cast their ballot for a freely-elected government. And they realize this is the first step and that democracy will take time to fully emerge. But the international community stands with the Iraqi people. In statement after statement, and through their actions, the international community is showing their support for moving forward on these elections.

Q So the President is satisfied with the participation -- not of Allawi, but other leaders in the Middle East?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think there are a number of leaders -- in fact, King Abdullah recently hosted a meeting where Arab nations reaffirmed their commitment to helping the Iraqi people and their commitment to moving forward on elections.

Q Has the President been watching any of the confirmation hearing today of his friend, his very close friend, Dr. Rice?

MR. McCLELLAN: Last I checked, he had not had the opportunity. He had a number of meetings this morning during the time that her confirmation hearings began. And then he had a Homeland Security Council meeting, he had some interviews, and he was participating in some speech preparation for his address on Thursday.

He did speak with her last night and wished her well. She is someone who will make an outstanding Secretary of State and build upon the many accomplishments that Secretary Powell has worked to achieve during his time in office. And the President looks forward to her nomination being confirmed quickly.

Q Scott, as Dr. Rice is on the Hill, one cannot think about the fact of their closeness, and how she runs across the hall and he may pick up the phone or she'll run across the hall and talk to him about different things. How is that going to work now that she's going to be up the street and he's going to be here, she's going to be there? Are they going to keep some kind of situation where maybe she can come in the morning, still spend a little more time -- extra time here and go to the State Department --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, Secretary Powell has been very involved in the deliberations and the decision-making process here at the White House. He is someone that the President has met with on at least, I would say, a weekly basis. But there are many other additional meetings beside that. So I'm sure she'll be spending -- continue to spend a good bit of time here at the White House. She has the full trust of the President, and she is fully ready to step in and be America's chief diplomat.

Q And also, lastly, many people are concerned about the pageantry right now as you are dealing with the situation of the tsunami-stricken areas, and also the insurgents in Iraq. Was there ever any consideration of trying to downplay a lot of the pageantry, the balls and the things of that nature, as the world is going through many different issues?

MR. McCLELLAN: The inaugural is a great American tradition, and it's an opportunity to highlight democracy and freedom, and to show the world the values that America stands for. This inaugural will be, as I pointed out, celebrating freedom, and also paying tribute to our men and women in uniform who defend our freedoms. This is an opportunity to highlight the greatness of America. And the President looks forward to participating in the events, and he's appreciative of the strong support across America for the events that are taking place.

Q At her confirmation hearing this morning, Dr. Rice was asked, is the President going to focus new economic attention on Latin America, and, diplomatically, what does he plan to do about Venezuela's President Chavez, and his close relationship with Fidel Castro.

MR. McCLELLAN: In terms of Latin America, this President has done a lot to strengthen our relationships with countries throughout the Americas, including in Latin America. And he will continue to build upon that. We had a great summit in Monterrey not too long ago, where we put forward initiatives to support efforts to strengthen democracies and the rule of law and to fight corruption and to encourage transparency. And that was an important meeting, an important way forward for the countries of the Americas.

In terms of our relationships with individual countries, the President has met with many leaders from the countries. We had a great meeting down in Chile not too long ago in the APEC summit, and he had some individual meetings with leaders from the region, including President Fox and President Lagos of Chile. So the President looks forward to continuing to strengthen our commitment to the Americas and expanding our diplomatic efforts in that arena, as well.

Q Scott, this morning, discussing the Thursday speech, you talked about, on the domestic front, he'll be talking about trusting people, empowering people, not government, giving people more of a say over their own lives. We know how he feels on Social Security, freeing up people to invest their own money, your talk about home ownership. Where else, what other aspects of life does the President --

MR. McCLELLAN: Expanding home ownership, that's -- as you just mentioned, is one area. Giving people more of a say over their own retirement savings, and you mentioned one area there, Social Security. Also giving people more control over their health care and their health plans. The President has talked about the importance of making sure that people can choose the kind of health care that best fits their individual needs. We've taken some steps in that area, in terms of strengthening and modernizing Medicare, so that seniors have more options and choices. We trust people to make the right decisions. This is about empowering people, not government. And that's what the President -- the philosophy behind the President's approach.

Q So is No Child Left Behind and expanding that to high schools go counter to that? There certainly is an aspect to that in which government is more involved.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, but at the same time, the government has expanded flexibility for more local control. We've given school districts more flexibility, but what we've said there is that we want to make sure that there are high standards in place, and that we insist on results and accountability. We want to make sure every child is learning. So that's the way the President looks at the education system.

Q As a follow-up to that, usually inaugural addresses are flowery words, and everything else, but will he mention some of these things specifically by name in his address?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think you should look at the inaugural as a broader thematic speech, that really outlines the principles and philosophy that guide the agenda that the President is pursuing. And then the State of the Union is coming up in early February, and that's a speech where it will be a more detailed blueprint of how to implement the agenda that the President has outlined.

Q So the word "Social Security" is not going to come up?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you'll be there to cover the speech, so stay tuned. But this is -- I'm trying to point you in the right direction, that this is really a speech that will lay out the philosophy and principles that guide us, moving forward. And he'll talk about the ideals and values of America, the ones that we hold so dearly, the ideals of self-governance and human rights and human dignity for all, and the ideal of freedom and how freedom is important to making the world -- advancing freedom is critical to making the world a safer place and making America more secure.

Q Scott, a quick follow on that. When you talk about getting government out of people's lives, and we tend to think people as people --

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not saying, out of their lives. Government has an important role to play. But we want people to have more control over their lives.

Q Businesses also? Are we also talking about dereg -- should we also be thinking in those realms, as opposed to individual's lives, the government getting more --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think he's talking about people, individuals, is what the President is referring to when we talk about building an ownership society where people have more say over their health plans, where people have more say over their own retirement savings and where people have more ownership in society through home ownership, for instance.

Q What about getting government more out of business lives?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I'm telling you what the President is going to be focusing on and talking about. I mean, we've talked about that, as well, and about the excessive regulations that sometimes hamper small businesses from creating jobs. Small businesses are the backbone of our economy and they're the job-creators of our economy.

Q Will that be referred to Thursday?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't think that he'll refer specifically to that.

Q Scott, in a weekend newspaper interview the President said that he would not be pushing the Senate this year to pass a constitutional marriage amendment because the votes aren't there. I think it could be argued that the votes aren't there yet, either for Social Security and immigration reform. Why is he abandoning --

MR. McCLELLAN: Let me make clear what the President said and what the President believes. The President will continue to advocate the need for a constitutional amendment to protect the sanctity of marriage. It is something he believes very strongly in. In fact, he has already spent a lot of political capital on getting that initiative moving. But he's also -- in his interview he also talked about the legislative reality in the Senate. There really needs to be more of an openness in the Senate to be able to spend more capital on moving it forward. But the President is going to continue to make his views known and continue to talk about it and make clear why he believes it is necessary.

Remember, in the Senate, you have to have 67 votes to move a constitutional amendment forward. And there are a number of members of the Senate that have said that they're not open to it until the Defense of Marriage Act faces a serious legal challenge. So that's just talking about the legislative reality. But he remains firmly committed to protecting the sanctity of marriage and moving forward on a constitutional amendment.

Q But the legislative reality last year, when he announced his support for the amendment, was that there were fewer Republicans in the Senate than there are today and presumably less support for the issue. So did he not think he had the support last year?

MR. McCLELLAN: I just said that he's going to continue to advocate the need for a constitutional amendment. It's something he believes very strongly in.

Q Were there votes there in the Senate last year, did the President believe?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, that was the beginning of getting the process moving and talking about the need for a constitutional amendment. Since that time, there are many members of the Senate who have made clear their views and their lack of an openness to moving on it at this time. But we're going to continue to encourage them to move forward on it. And I think it's important for those who support this effort in the country to make it clear that they want to take this step to protect the sanctity of marriage, as well, and make those views known to members of Congress, too.

Q Thank you. As long as we're talking about the Senate, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid was on ABC yesterday and pretty much said that Democrats aren't going to participate in the Social Security debate, they are not going to approve the President's judges that he renominated that were passed over in the previous session, and pretty much, it's more of the same that we saw on Tom Daschle's leadership. How are you going to proceed to get some of these big things accomplished?

MR. McCLELLAN: We were able to accomplish many big things in the first term under this President's leadership. The President reached out to members on both sides of the aisle to move forward on cutting taxes and getting our economy growing. He reached out to members on both sides of the aisle to move forward on historic education reforms, to make sure that every child in America was able to learn and have the opportunity to succeed. And we're continuing to implement many of those reforms. He reached out to members to modernize Medicare, so that our seniors would have prescription drug coverage under Medicare and so that they would have more choices to be able to choose the kind of health care that best fits their individual needs.

So there are a number of areas we were able to achieve many big things on in the first term. And we certainly came together to move forward in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, to take significant steps to win the war on terrorism and protect the homeland.

And the President is going to -- this is a week when the President will talk about the importance of coming together to work together to achieve big things. This President believes in solving problems, not passing them on to future generations -- he's made that very clear. And there are a number of challenges we face and we need to address those challenges now, not pass them on to future generations and let them get worse. We have an obligation to lead. And at the same time, we have an obligation to work together to try to achieve big things.

Q Harry Reid said that there is no crisis in Social Security, even though the previous Democratic President, President Clinton, back in '98, said that there was. How do you reconcile that position with --

MR. McCLELLAN: We talked a little bit about this last week, and we can debate the word "crisis," but the reality is Social Security faces fundamental structural problems. And they only get worse over time. And the President is going to continue to talking about that. That's why we need to act now, so that we strengthen Social Security for younger workers and younger Americans. We want our children and grandchildren to be able to build a nest egg of their own, and realize a greater rate of return on their retirement savings. That's why personal retirement accounts are so important to that. We can't ignore the demographic facts, the facts that the number of workers paying into the system to support the number of retirees is diminishing, and we need to address this problem now. And the President is committed to doing it in a bipartisan way and working with everyone who recognizes that we have an obligation to address problems.

Q Can I ask you, the eight Chinese workers abducted in Iraq, taken hostage, are they employed by the U.S. military, or can foreign worker safety be protected in Iraq?

MR. McCLELLAN: The safety and security of the American people is always at the top of our list. The safety and security of foreign workers who are in Iraq is a top priority of our coalition forces, as well as the Iraqi security forces. There are security challenges that remain in the country. We are partnering very closely with the interim government and with Iraqi security forces to address these situations. We condemn the hostage-taking or kidnapping of people who are there to help the Iraqi people realize a better future. It's always a priority when people are taken hostage for, obviously, the governments where those people are from, as well as the international community, and that includes the United States.

Q Given the fact that Medicare's fiscal problems are far more immediate and far more serious than Social Security's, why is Social Security getting all the attention now?

MR. McCLELLAN: Here's why, and I think, actually -- I think I actually talked about this last week. The President, I know, talked about it in one of his recent interviews, as well. I believe it may have been with The Washington Post and the distinguished gentleman up here in the second row. But we just passed some historic improvements to Medicare for the first time since it was really created back in the '60s. And it's important that we focus on implementing those reforms to expand choice for our seniors and make sure that they prescription drug coverage under Medicare.

There are some cost control measures that were passed as part of that, and they were a step. There's more to do when it comes to modernizing and strengthening Medicare. But we have already acted to pass some important improvements to the program. And as we work to increase competition and expand choice, that will address some of the cost issues. So we need to focus on implementing those reforms and getting them in place for when they're fully -- when that plan goes into full operation in 2006. But I think we recognize there's more to do. On Social Security, we haven't taken any steps to address it at this point. And that's why -- and for the reasons I stated a little while ago is why we need to act on that.

Q -- recognize the prescription drug program was --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, and there are also some cost controls that were passed as part of the legislation and that expanding competition will help address some of the cost issues. And as we implement that over time, it will address some of those issues, as well. But that was an important step. And right now, we need to focus on implementing those reforms.

Q It appears Iran continues to keep playing cat and mouse games with the IAEA, denying certain nuclear programs are underway, but denying access to certain facilities. In 2005, will the President have a plan in place where these negotiations will have to reach some kind of critical mass, excuse the pun, before some kind of stronger measures are taken to make sure Iran does not develop a full nuclear capability?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, Iran has made some commitments, and they need to abide by those commitments. We expect Iran to fully comply with its international obligations and to fully comply with the International Atomic Energy Agency. That's where our expectations are. We continue to work with our European allies to find a diplomatic resolution to Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. And they made some very clear commitments, and we will see by their actions whether or not they are finally serious and willing to follow through on those commitments. But we have a number of concerns about Iran, including their pursuit of nuclear weapons and their interest in longer-range ballistic missiles, and we've expressed those concerns. And we'll continue working closely with the international community to address these issues.

Q Thank you.

MR. McCLELLAN: Thank you.

END 12:57 P.M. EST