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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
January 19, 2005

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

Play Video  Video (Real)

12:48 P.M. EST

MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon. Hope everybody made it here through the snow. The President is looking forward to taking the oath of office tomorrow. He is honored to be given the opportunity by the American people to continue serving for another four years. The President, in his remarks, will talk about the historic times in which we live, and he'll talk about his hopeful vision for America and the world. He will be addressing the American people and the world in his remarks.

It is a liberty speech. The President will talk about the power of freedom; peace is secured by advancing freedom. And I also expect the President will talk about how the ideals and values that we hold so dearly, our deepest-held beliefs, promote our most vital interest. America has great influence, and the President believes it is vital to our interest to use it to make the world a better and safer place. And the President will also talk about extending freedom at home by reforming our institutions and building an ownership society. The President will talk about the importance of character, and the remarks will also highlight the philosophy that guides us as we work together to build a better and more hopeful world, and a stronger America. And the President is very much looking forward to tomorrow's events.

And with that, I will be glad to take questions.

Q So does the President believe that his Social Security proposals will still have a life by the time they get to Congress?

MR. McCLELLAN: Which proposal are you referring to, John? The President has outlined some very clear principles that should guide us as we move forward to address Social Security. Social Security faces many serious challenges and members on both sides of the aisle in Congress recognize the problems facing Social Security and the need to move forward on solutions to address it now, because it only gets worse over time.

And so there are a number of congressional leaders that we're reaching out to and talking to about ideas for how we move forward together to solve this problem. The President looks forward to listening to all ideas that are consistent with his principles about how we can move forward to get it done this year.

Q But in an article, one prominent Republican pronounced the idea a "dead horse." And I'm just wondering if the President thinks he can still reinvigorate that horse and ride it up to the Hill.

MR. McCLELLAN: I would encourage you to read his entire remarks, because he said a lot more than what you just referenced. And, in fact, he said that he didn't want to rule anything in or out. And you might want to talk to his office, as well. He was talking about the need to move forward on solving a problem. The President believes very strongly that we must solve problems, not pass them on to future generations.

Q Scott, they're not mutually exclusive. You can not rule anything in or out, and still say, as the Congressman did, that he believes that partisan bickering will render the President's proposal to create private accounts a "dead horse." He was making a prediction. Does the President find it helpful that Republican lawmakers are already wagering on what will happen with the --

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know that you're characterizing exactly what he said correctly. I think you should talk to his office about what he was saying. But let me make it very clear; we have great respect for Chairman Thomas and his leadership. He's someone that we will continue to work very closely with as we move forward to solve this problem. He recognizes, as do other members in Congress on both sides of the aisle, that we have a serious problem facing Social Security and we need to act now to solve that problem, because this is a problem that will continue to get worse over time, our options would become much more limited.

Right now, younger workers are facing massive tax increases or massive benefit cuts under the current system. The President wants to help them realize a greater rate of return on their savings by adding a new benefit, and taking other steps to strengthen Social Security. We're going to work very closely with members on both sides of the aisle as we move forward. But what's important is that we act now. It's important that -- or I think significant that members are talking about how we can solve this problem and the need to act on it now. That's a significant first step for moving forward in a bipartisan -- bipartisan way to get this problem solved this year.

Look, legislation -- legislation, anytime it goes through Congress, tends to change during the process. The President looks forward to working with members to move forward on legislation. And we'll be talking about it more in the coming weeks and months.

Q There does appear to be some restiveness up on the Hill, and even Congressman McCrery indicated that the President needs to lead on this issue, that they were looking for more guidance from the President; rather than some larger principles, they wanted specifics so they could move forward. When would you expect that the President --

MR. McCLELLAN: The President is leading on this issue. He led on this issue in 2000; he led on this issue in the 2004 campaign; and he has made it very clear he will continue to lead on this issue. He's had good meetings with members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans alike, to talk about how we can move forward on this important priority. And he's made it very clear that he will continue leading as we move forward on this issue, but that he wants to work closely with congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle who recognize there is a problem, to get something done. And that's -- the President believes that we have an obligation to lead and act to address our most pressing problems. And this is one of them and that's what he will do.

Q What is your understanding of what Chairman Thomas was saying?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't speak for members of Congress. I'll let them speak for themselves.

Q No, but you clearly have an understanding. You're quibbling with what some people here interpreted --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, it was interesting, I read some of the coverage of his remarks yesterday, and there was one paper that played up certain things that he said, but there was other coverage that gave a fuller account of what he was talking about. But what I do know he was talking about was that we have a serious problem facing Social Security. And he was talking about the need to look at solutions for getting it done. That's the -- that's the kind of people that the President wants to work closely with to get this done.

Q So you don't think that he was suggesting that you didn't have a chance on Capitol Hill, but rather that it would face some partisan headwinds?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think you should look at some of the other coverage. I'll let him speak for himself about what he was talking about. But I pointed out that during the legislative process you expect that legislation to change. That's part of working to get things done. And the President looks forward to continuing to work with members and continuing to work with Chairman Thomas and other leaders to get this done.

Q Is that what you saw as the bottom line in his remarks, that legislation gets up there and gets changed, so you have to work with both sides? Is that --

MR. McCLELLAN: I thought what was important about his remarks is that he's talking about the serious challenges facing Social Security and the need to move forward together to address that challenge.

Q Scott, does the President still believe that there's a crisis --

MR. McCLELLAN: John. I'll come back to you. Go ahead, John.

Q Two questions, one, half in jest --

MR. McCLELLAN: I'll come back to you.

Q -- half in jest, I guess, on the subject we're still talking about. But now that he has Chairman Thomas to negotiate with and not just himself -- (laughter) -- is the President willing to maybe say a little bit more about how he'd pay for this, or what he might change in Social Security as part of his plan?

MR. McCLELLAN: We're continuing to talk with members of Congress about how to move forward together to address this problem that Social Security faces.

Q Wondering how you would react to a common theme that came up at Dr. Rice's confirmation hearings, a pointed criticism by Democrats, including Senator Biden and some others, that in their view, that Dr. Rice -- and the rest of the administration, for that matter -- are not leveling with the American people about what they call problems in Iraq, and not willing to say that, yes, some mistakes were made along the way.

MR. McCLELLAN: John, I think you had an interview with the President yesterday, and you talked about these very issues. The President was very up front with the American people about what we're facing in Iraq and what we're working to achieve in Iraq. You went through some of these very issues in your interview, I think. And I apologize if it was Jim's interview, and not yours -- but I think it was yours. (Laughter.)

Q It wasn't mine. (Laughter.)

Q Just to clarify. (Laughter.)

Q Not this time, anyway. (Laughter.)

MR. McCLELLAN: All right, Steve, you'll get one before him. (Laughter.) Just kidding.

Q Does the President still believe there's a crisis in Social Security and that the crisis is now?

MR. McCLELLAN: John, we talked about this last week. We can argue over the words crisis or not a crisis, but the bottom line is that there is a serious problem facing Social Security. Younger workers today -- my generation and younger generations expect that they won't have any savings, when they retire, in their Social Security accounts. That's why the President wants to act to strengthen it. We see that in 2018 that the number of people paying into the system won't be able to support the benefits being paid out and that --

Q I understand the math --

MR. McCLELLAN: -- and that gets worse over time.

Q -- but it was just that idea of a "crisis." And if there's an argument, the argument is with yourselves, it's not with us, because he was the one who used the word.

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I think when you -- that's why I'm pointing out the demographic facts. If you look at the demographic facts, I think they're very clear that there is a serious problem facing Social Security. Some people can argue that there's not a problem facing Social Security, but they're just sticking their head in the sand and ignoring a problem that's only going to get worse over time. We stand by what we said before. But I said, regardless of whether or not you want to argue crisis or not a crisis, I think we can -- I think most people will agree that we face a serious challenge and a real problem with Social Security and we need to act to address it now.

When you talk about 1950, you had 16 workers to support every one retiree, and today you have about 3.3 to support every retiree, and that number keeps going down. You're going to have shortfalls into the system. And it's only going to get worse over time until it goes bankrupt in 2042, according to the Social Security trustees. And our options become much more limited over time if we don't act now. We have more options available to us today than we will tomorrow. And the President believes that's why we need to take advantage of this opportunity and solve this problem.

Q First on Social Security. Can we take your carefully hedged remarks about specific proposals to mean that the President has not yet decided whether to send to the Hill something with specifics in it?

MR. McCLELLAN: We never get into internal discussions here, but I think the President has made it clear that he intends to put forward some possible solutions so that we can move forward together to get this solved this year. So I think he's made that -- he's made that very clear.

We'll have more to say about it as we move forward on the process. The President is not going to get into discussing those specifics here in the media, or anything of that nature. He wants to talk about it directly with members of Congress.

Q Not asking about the specifics, I'm asking whether he's going to have a plan, or multiple plans.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, he's put forward some important principles and things that need to be included in any proposal, like personal retirement accounts, no increases in payroll taxes, and no changes for those at or near retirement. And that's how we're going to move forward. But he'll be talking about it more over the course of time. Then we can come to specific questions about it.

Q Can you update us on his preparations for the speech tomorrow, what he's doing? Is everything locked in --

MR. McCLELLAN: He was supposed to have some speech preparation a short time ago, but that's been pushed back to later in the afternoon. I think some of the events from this morning ran a little bit late, and he's participating in a family luncheon right now over in the Residence. He has a number of family members here for tomorrow's events. And I think we, in fact, plan to release a photo of that -- of the family to everybody later today. I think they're going to take a picture on the South Portico.

The President, right now, is on draft 21 of his remarks. The edits that have taken place over the last few days are very minor edits at this point. But every time there's a change, it becomes a new draft. It's still expected to be 17 minutes long, and I talked about some of the general themes that he will be discussing tomorrow in his remarks. He's looking forward to it.

Q Do you have any indication of whether the weather might affect any of the plans?

MR. McCLELLAN: I haven't heard any update at this point. Obviously, we're looking outside just like you all are. And I know that the latest forecast was predicting snow, but there's always a contingency plan.

Q It slowed things down this morning, though, right? Was that one of the problems this morning?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know that the weather was the specific problem. I think that some of these events, as we saw yesterday, like the "Saluting Those Who Serve" event just ran a little long.

Q He saw the Washington Bible this morning. Does he want to use that tomorrow for the ceremony?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, he will be using a family Bible that he used in 2000 -- or 2001, I'm sorry -- that I know his brother used for his gubernatorial inaugural. And I know that that's a Bible that his father used in addition to the one that George Washington used. They used two Bibles. And I know the intention back in 2001 was to also use the George Washington Bible, but because of the weather and the fragile nature of that Bible, it was not used. They were going to -- but his father used both Bibles for his swearing-in ceremony.

Q What will they do tomorrow? Will they -- is he going to use both?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think the intention is to use the family Bible.

Q And can I follow up and ask about -- the President comes down from the Hill; obviously, the security around Washington different than it was four years. Does the President feel that that's at all restricting or limiting or restraining the celebration this year?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think that the authorities have gone to great lengths to make sure that they're -- that people can have as much access as possible, while also making sure that they're taking steps to provide for the security of this event. This was an event that was designated a national special security event so the Secret Service is in charge of it, and I think they're doing an outstanding job to balance those concerns to make sure people have the access to enjoy and celebrate this great American tradition, as well as to take care of the security needs that come with an event of this nature, particularly during the time of war that we are in.

Q So the President doesn't feel the restraint as he moves down the avenue?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I think that they've gone to great lengths to make sure that they have the appropriate security measures in place, some of which you'll see and some of which you won't, and to make sure that everybody who is participating in the inaugural will be able to enjoy the celebration. This is -- the inaugural is a time for all Americans to come together, and for all of us to focus on how we can work together to achieve great goals. And the President looks forward to all of tomorrow's events. He looks forward to tonight's "Celebration of Freedom" Concert. As you know, the theme for the inaugural is celebrating freedom, honoring service. And he began yesterday by paying tribute to our men and women in uniform. And I expect he will continue to pay tribute to their courage and sacrifice in his remarks tomorrow.

Q Were all of the President's siblings at the luncheon today?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think they were all scheduled to be there. I'm not over there, it's going on right now. But you'll have the group picture so you can look and see for yourself. But when I looked at it, I think they were all expected to be there.

Q You mentioned this morning the President was going to speak at the chairman's event -- luncheon. We weren't able to cover that. Can you tell us what -- what he told them at the chairman's luncheon, and what he's going to say tonight at the candlelight dinners?

MR. McCLELLAN: It was just brief, informal remarks to the chairman's luncheon. He made some similar remarks, I think, yesterday to the RNC Committee members and to the chairman's meeting -- or reception that was held yesterday evening. I think it's some of what you have heard publicly when the President has talked about his upcoming remarks and the meaning of this inaugural and the significance of this moment in our history.

Q Do you want to share any of his --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you've heard from him; I'll leave it where he did. I've shared for you some information about tomorrow's remarks, as well. Glad to --

Q We actually didn't hear from him today.

MR. McCLELLAN: -- glad to talk about that further, as well. But you've heard from him over the last few days. But what was the last part of your question?

Q Tonight, he speaks also -- do you want to tell us what he's going to tell them?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, it will be brief remarks. This is a concert that is being held for the thousands of people that are coming to town to celebrate the inaugural. And there will be a number of people attending this particular event. And so it will be brief remarks talking about the significance of the moment we are in. I expect he'll talk about how this is a time of unity for America. And I expect he'll talk about the opportunity we have before us that we need to seize to achieve great goals, as I mentioned a second ago. And I expect he will briefly touch on tomorrow's remarks, talking about the importance of advancing freedom and the power of freedom. That's a quick overview of his remarks tonight, but it's a brief --

Q That's the open event, the Celebration of Freedom?

MR. McCLELLAN: That's correct.

Q So he does make remarks there? Okay.

MR. McCLELLAN: Brief remarks.

Q And any update on text release tomorrow morning of the inaugural --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, we're working on all that, taking into concern your needs.

Q Scott, as you've been talking about this is a time for all Americans to come together, and you were also saying that the President wants to work with those who have ideas that are consistent with his principles -- how does that mesh with this is a time to come together? Because many people do not necessarily agree with the President and many people -- to listen to what was said with Dr. Rice's confirmation hearings, Republicans and Democrats alike were both saying, look, the President needs to hear yeses and noes, as well. How is that going to play now in the second term?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, are you talking about specific issues? Are you talking about Social -- I mean, on Social Security, the President --

Q Not just Social Security, everything.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, that's what you started with. Well, the President has made it very clear that he will continue to elevate the discourse in this town and he will continue reaching out to all those want to work together to confront the big challenges that we face and to achieve big things for the American people. We were elected to come to Washington to get things done. We have an obligation to act and to lead, to solve the problems facing America. And we have an obligation to use the influence that we have in the world to advance the ideals that we hold so dearly. Now it's not imposing anything in terms of American views, but it's helping others attain the freedoms they aspire to achieve.

Q Well, as the President says, his arm is longer now, reaching to those who voted for John Kerry. Many are saying, look, the politics are over. This is a time for him to really get down to the brass tacks --

MR. McCLELLAN: The President has said that.

Q He's not going to run for office again --

MR. McCLELLAN: That's correct. He's talked about that, as well.

Q Right, politics are over. So why not discuss other issues. Get those dissenting voices in here --

MR. McCLELLAN: April, the President was elected in a -- with a clear vote from the American people on an agenda. The American people looked at the two candidate's agendas and they made a decision. One of the things that the President talked about in the first term was his regret that he wasn't able to do more to change the tone in Washington, D.C. But I think if you look at his record, he has always worked to elevate the discourse. He has always worked to reach out to those on the other side of the aisle who want to get things done. We accomplished many big things in the first term by working in a bipartisan way, by reaching out. And people were willing to reach back.

Now, it got closer to the election time period and, unfortunately, partisan politics came more into play, and some of the partisan tone of Washington, D.C. increased. And -- but the President is not up for election again. He's here to get things done for the American people. And he hopes that members of Congress will look at this as an opportunity to do more to change the tone and do more to work together to achieve big things for the American people. But he has an obligation to lead on the agenda that he campaigned on for the American people. And he also believes it's important to reach out to those across the aisle to listen to their ideas and focus on how we can move forward together on the agenda that he outlined.

Q Two brief questions. First, you said yesterday morning that the President has filled all statutory required Cabinet positions so far. At least a few years ago, I seem to recall the United Nations ambassador being part of the President's Cabinet, and that position remains vacant. Do we expect an announcement on that soon?

MR. McCLELLAN: Continuing to move forward on it. Stay tuned.

Q Stay tuned. Second, you spoke very forcefully about --

MR. McCLELLAN: He does appreciate the job that Ambassador Danforth has done in the time that he's been there.

Q You spoke very forcefully about liberty in Iraq and democracy. You made many good statements, in the Ukraine when people were denied the right to vote and the election had to be run again. Would the administration say the same thing about Washington state, where surveys show more than 50 percent of the people don't believe their governor was legitimately elected?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, that's a matter that's been in dispute between the various parties, the Democratic and the Republican Party. They've been working to address that, and we'll let them address it. I think we've made our views clear on certain issues that have come up in that election.

Q You spoke earlier about a time line -- or about seeing Social Security done by the end of the year. Is there any kind of time line that you guys are looking at in terms of introducing legislation and getting it through Congress?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the President had talked about -- or referenced the other day in one of his interviews that he would like to see major action taken by both chambers in a matter of several months. But we're going to continue working with congressional leaders on the time line. This is one of his top priorities. I think members of Congress have talked about how they intend to move forward on this soon, and make it a high priority. We've had good discussions with them about that. And we'll move as quickly as we can, working closely with congressional leaders to get it done.

Q Scott, on the President's goal of building an ownership society, do you agree or do you believe that younger workers could achieve greater retirement savings in other ways, besides carving out payroll contributions, namely by expanding IRAs such as the lifetime savings account the Treasury has tried to propose in the last --

MR. McCLELLAN: We believe that by giving them a new benefit under the personal retirement accounts they will be able to realize a greater rate of return on their own retirement savings. That's the goal of that. It's also part of the goal to give them more ownership over their own retirement savings. It's a philosophical view. The President trusts people. We want the American people to have more control over their own lives. We want the American people to have more say over their own lives. We want them to be able to have more control over their own retirement savings. We want them to be able to own a home. We want them to be able to start a small business. We want them to be able to have more say over their health insurance plans. So it's a philosophy behind the ownership society that he will be talking about tomorrow.

Q But couldn't that goal be achieved by expanded IRAs?

MR. McCLELLAN: The President has talked about why he believes that this is the right approach to take for strengthening Social Security for younger workers. I know there are differing views on this. I think he's made his views very clear.

Q Earlier when we talked about Social Security and Chairman Thomas's remarks, you correctly pointed out that some of the news reports had misrepresented his remarks. Do you get the sense that this is more of the battle that you're going to face?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not challenging the quotes -- just to be clear. I'm just saying that there are some different accounts of the coverage.

Q But they were taken out of context and led readers to believe that Chairman Thomas was going to kill this plan, when, in fact, he is very supportive of it, and that Republicans are just waiting for this opportunity to receive something in Congress that they can move forward with. So do you feel that you're going to get fair play going forward in this discussion?

MR. McCLELLAN: This is an important discussion to have, and I think that there is a lot of attention being focused on the problem facing Social Security. That's a good thing. And we want to continue to talk about that. The President will continue to speak directly to the American people and he'll continue to reach out directly to congressional leaders to talk about how we can move forward. The first thing we have to do is have a common understanding of the problem facing Social Security. The facts are very clear about the problems facing Social Security. And the President wants to reach out and work in a bipartisan way to move forward to solve that problem.

Go ahead in the back.

Q Thank you so much. A week ago, several congressmen went to North Korea -- like Congressman Weldon just came back to Washington yesterday -- he got a message from North Korea. Did the President meet these congressmen so far? And if not, he's going to meet -- he's going to get any briefing?

MR. McCLELLAN: I know that they've met -- they've met with some leaders within the administration and talked to them about their trip. The State Department talked about that the other day. We continue to -- we remain hopeful that North Korea will come back to the six-party talks very soon. It's important that we move forward on the multilateral approach that this administration is pursuing. All countries in that region have made it very clear they want a nuclear-free peninsula. And they're sending the same message to North Korea.

We put forward a proposal at the last round of talks, the last round of six-party talks, and it's important that when we come back to the talks, we talk about how we can move forward in a substantive way on that proposal. We believe that that was a proposal that addresses all the concerns of the various parties and is a good place to begin moving forward to resolving North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Q Scott, does the administration believe it's actually making headway in convincing the public that Social Security is approaching a crisis in the years ahead? I noticed Democrats and others are accusing the administration of employing the politics of fear to advance the agenda.

MR. McCLELLAN: I would hope people would focus on solutions to problems, rather than trying to obstruct ways to get things done. And that's the attitude the President is going into this important discussion with. He wants to work together to solve this problem. There are many members on both sides of the aisle that recognize there's a problem. And John asked earlier today, was it a crisis -- we can look right back to what President Clinton said in 1998; he said it was, and he talked about the situation facing Social Security. It's only gotten worse since that time. We've continued to take patchwork approaches to addressing the problem facing Social Security. The President wants a permanent solution, so that our younger workers will be able to realize a greater rate of return on their own retirement savings and have those retirement savings there when they retire. Right now they have an empty promise because the system is unsustainable.

But as I said, the facts are very clear. And if people want to argue that it's not a problem, that's perfectly their right to do, but I think the American people recognize it's a problem. I know younger workers recognize that it's a serious problem because I know younger Americans don't believe that they're going to have their retirement savings there when they are ready to retire. And I think you've seen a number of surveys talking about -- or showing that there is a lot of support for the idea of personal retirement accounts that would be based on allowing the workers, if they so choose, to have something similar to what federal employees have today. These are safe investments that have helped federal workers realize a greater rate of return on their retirement savings through the Thrift Savings Plan.

Q Do you believe that quibbling over the word "crisis," itself, is distracting from the main argument?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think that was one point I was discussing earlier. We can debate whether it's a crisis or not a crisis, but the facts are very clear and it is a serious problem facing Social Security. It is a problem that gets worse over time. We've made clear we believe it is. And I think President Clinton and other democratic leaders have made clear that it is. Now it's time to talk about how we can find solutions to this problem.

Q In furtherance of an ownership society, will the President take the lead in attacking farm subsidies?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, in terms of the ownership society, I think the President is going to be talking about what I addressed the other day. I mean, he's already spoken to the issue of farm subsidies and things of that nature. I think our views are known on that issue, and we'll continue to work with Congress as we move forward on those issues, as well.

Q You brought up something I said earlier, so I wanted to bring up something you said earlier. (Laughter.)

Q Just because. (Laughter.)

Q -- second term. (Laughter.)

MR. McCLELLAN: No, it doesn't start until tomorrow. (Laughter.) That's the way to end the first term, John? (Laughter.)

Q You've said that we've got more options now --

MR. McCLELLAN: He wants another interview.

Q You can drag this out just as long as you like. (Laughter.)

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not in a hurry.

Q You've said that we've got more options now to pick Social Security than we will down the road. Other than the ability to maximize private accounts for today's younger workers, what options are there available to you now that won't be available to you in 2018 --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, there are a number of ideas being discussed. But the tax increases will only grow over time. And the benefit reductions will have to be more drastic. And the options available will become more along the lines of the need to raise the retirement age significantly and things of that nature. I think everybody has pointed out, and the bipartisan commission that the President appointed has pointed out how the problem gets worse over time and your options become more limited for addressing it, because you have less -- you have a shorter amount of time in which to act, and you have a much worse problem. So your options do become more limited.

Q Thank you.

MR. McCLELLAN: Thank you.

END 1:19 P.M. EST