The White House, President George W. Bush Click to print this document

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
February 16, 2005

Press Gaggle by Scott McClellan
Aboard Air Force One
En route Portsmouth, New Hampshire

11:03 A.M. EST

MR. McCLELLAN: All right, just a couple of things to begin with. The President had a good discussion this morning with the congressional leadership, the bipartisan congressional leadership. It was an opportunity to talk about a range of issues, including the President's upcoming trip to Europe. So the President appreciated the opportunity to sit down and visit with the bipartisan leadership this morning.

At the conversation on Social Security today -- I think you have the fact sheet already, but I wanted to bring to your attention on the panel today will be former Democratic Congressman Tim Penny. I think that this is an example of leaders on both sides of the aisle who recognize the importance of addressing the problems facing Social Security and working to find a bipartisan solution and doing so this year. So I just wanted to bring that to your attention.

Also, the President's bipartisan advisory panel on tax reform is holding their first meeting today at the Ronald Reagan Building. That was set to begin at 10:00 a.m. this morning. And I think that's really all I have to begin with.

Q What happened in Iran today, with that explosion? Have you determined what caused it?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, we've seen the reports and we're looking into them. I think you all have seen the reports coming out of the Iranian News Agency, as well, saying that it might have been a fuel tank falling out of an airplane. So that's what we know. We've been looking into it.

Q And did you see the reports that Iran and Syria apparently now are saying that they're going to have some sort of cooperation with each other, because of what the U.S. is doing? You know, what -- how, you know, concerned are you about that?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, I saw the statement, I guess, from an Iranian official in news reports. I'm not sure exactly what their referring to, from the comments that I saw. But our views are very clear on Syria and Iran. The President expressed those views again in the State of the Union address, when he talked about both countries. But you say they were talking about the United States?

Q They were saying they were going to --

MR. McCLELLAN: Because from what I saw, it wasn't clear.

Q The story that we had was that they were talking about cooperating with each other because of the actions that the United States is taking against them.

MR. McCLELLAN: If they're talking about the United States, you know, I think that it's a fundamental misreading of the issue. Their problem is not with the United States, it's with the international community. Both Syria and Iran have international obligations and they need to abide by the commitments they have made to the international community.

Q Did you see the report of them shooting at a drone, an unmanned --

MR. McCLELLAN: Did we what?

Q Did you see the reports of the Iranians shooting at a drone?

MR. McCLELLAN: The reports? No, I just saw the report out of the Iranian News Agency, where they were suggesting it was possibly a fuel tank falling out of an airplane.

Q Scott, so as far as you know, there's no U.S. plane involved, at all; any U.S. assets whatsoever --

MR. McCLELLAN: Correct.

Q Who's on the plane with him today?

MR. McCLELLAN: Senator Gregg, Senator Sununu -- I think he's visiting with them right now.

Q Talking about strategy for the bill, for a Social Security --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, yes, I expect they'll talk about that, as well as other priorities going on in Congress. But they just started visiting a few minutes ago, I think.

Q So there are a couple reports about Greg Mankiw stepping down at the end of the week, and Ben Bernanke, the leading contender. Can you tell us anything about whether Bernanke is the lead contender for CEA --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I won't speculate on personnel matters. But we do have Greg's letter of resignation that is available; if you all want it, you can get it from our office. The President greatly appreciates the job that Greg Mankiw has done serving as head of the Council of Economic Advisors. He has done an outstanding job. I think Greg made it known when he began his service that he intended to serve for two years and then return to Harvard, to continue his teaching. And we have his letter of resignation, if you want to see that. But, obviously, we're moving to name a replacement and I expect that would be soon, but I won't characterize it beyond that.

Q Do you have any comment on the reports that the U.S. -- accusations by Iran that the U.S. is flying spy planes over?

MR. McCLELLAN: I talked about this the other day, and I don't really have anything further to say on it, than what I said previously.

Q Is there any new information at all on who was behind the attack in Lebanon, anything new?

MR. McCLELLAN: No. From our standpoint? Well, I mean, what's new, I guess, was the statement that was put out by the President of the United Nations Security Council. It was a strong statement that was -- that received unanimous support. It essentially talked about the importance of it being fully investigated and those who are responsible being brought to justice. And it talked about the importance of countries abiding by Security Council resolutions.

It also pointed out the importance of the Secretary General preparing a report looking at the causes and circumstances involving this brutal terrorist attack. It was a horrible attack and we want to see it fully investigated; we want to see those who are responsible brought to justice.

Q Scott, Greenspan is testifying today and he's expected to get a lot of fiscal policy questions. What do you -- what will your response be to the charges that although you plan to bring the deficit down, you cut it in half in five more years, that the longer-term issue of Social Security solvency hasn't been fully addressed with a detailed plan?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, that's why you've heard the President often talk about the twin deficits that we face. And the President has made it very clear that we need to address our long-term unfunded liabilities -- and that's Social Security and Medicare. We took an important step to reform Medicare and modernize it and bring some cost controls to the program. And the President, again, is talking today to the American people about the importance of strengthening Social Security and making it permanently sound. And we've talked about how people are going to look favorably upon action that will address these unfunded liabilities. And that's important.

We've also made a commitment to continue working with Congress to exercise even greater spending restraint. Our economy is growing stronger. We've seen increased revenues coming in to the Treasury. And that helps address the deficit issue. But the deficit-reduction plan that the President has outlined is based really on two things: one, continuing to keep our economy growing stronger; and two, exercising spending restraint. And Congress has met the top-line budget numbers that we have outlined over the previous couple years, and we're confident they'll do it again this year so that we can cut the deficit in half over the next five years.

Q Do you think the public fully understands the problem with Social Security?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think if you look at some of the recent surveys, I know last week the Washington Post pointed out that the American people -- that according to their survey, 73 percent, I think, was the number, 73 percent of the American people believe it's either a crisis or faces major problems. And so I think the American people do understand the problems facing Social Security, but it's important to continue reaching out to them to talk about how those problems are only going to get worse over time, and that that is why we need to act now to strengthen it for our children and grandchildren.

The President is going to continue going out and talking to the American people and seniors, and saying, if you're retired, nothing is going to change. He's going to continue reassuring seniors -- those seniors who are currently retired and then those who are near retirement that were born before 1950. That's important that they recognize nothing changes for them, because I think many seniors -- and I think you're going to have a grandfather on the panel today -- recognize the importance of strengthening Social Security for our children and grandchildren. They want to make sure that it is around for them, and give them the opportunity to realize an even greater grater rate of return.

Q So this process will continue for some time?

MR. McCLELLAN: Absolutely. I mean, this process is still in the early stages. He's only been on the road in a handful of states, or even less. So he's going to continue going out across the country, reaching out to the American people, talking about the problems facing Social Security and the need to advance a bipartisan solution and to act this year.

Q Is the discussion going to continue for a while on the same line it's been on, which is, this is a problem, as opposed to, what are the solutions for the solvency issue?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, it's both, but, yes. We're still in the early stages of this session of Congress. The President believes it's important to go directly to the American people and talk about the big challenges that this country faces. And one of the biggest challenges we face is Social Security. That's why he's reaching out to the American people all across the country. We're just in the initial phase of that at this point.

He's going to continue reaching out, talking about the problem. But he's also talking more about some of his ideas for strengthening Social Security. He's talked about the importance of personal accounts, so that younger workers can realize a greater rate of return. He's talked about ideas that others have suggested for solving this problem. And the President welcomes all ideas; he's made that very clear. And he wants to advance a bipartisan solution. And so one of the things we're focusing on today is bringing a Democrat on the panel -- a Democratic leader, to talk about some of those ideas.

Q But when does this initial phase end, talking about the problem, and move to the -- you know, how much longer do you think --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we're doing two things. One, we're reaching out to the American people, and two, we're reaching out to members of Congress. But there is going to be a period where the President is going to continue traveling the country and reaching out to the American people. I'm not putting a time line on it at this point, it's still in the early stages right now.

Q It's safe to say months, though, and not weeks or something, right?

MR. McCLELLAN: Oh, I think that this is an issue he will continue to talk about. Obviously, there's a legislative process. And I think everybody recognizes that that's going to -- it's going to take some time to move through the process. But the President has made it very clear he wants to get it done this year, and this is one of our highest domestic priorities. And so, yes, he'll continue --

Q The conversations?

MR. McCLELLAN: -- for some time he'll continue reaching out to the American people. And I expect he'll do it even throughout the process. But this is still -- we're still in the stage of talking with the American people about the problem and reaching out to members of Congress to say, we welcome your ideas, too; and let's talk about how we can work -- solve this together.

Q If the goal is to convince people who have doubts about the problem of Social Security, why do, it seems like we go to these rallies where people mostly seem to agree with the President. Why not -- is there some question as to whether the President's base of support is doubting the plan? Or at what point will you --

MR. McCLELLAN: I disagree with your characterization. One, the President is reaching out to all Americans. This is an issue that affects all Americans. So he's reaching out to all Americans in that regard. Now, the American people expect us to solve problems and not pass them on to future generations. So I think it's important to highlight the problems facing Social Security and have a discussion with the American people about those problems. That's what the President's doing.

He's doing it in different ways. He's doing it by participating in these conversations, he's doing it by sitting down with news outlets from across the country, like he did yesterday to talk about the challenge we face. These newspapers he sat down with yesterday are from states that had a larger percentage of seniors. And he wanted to make -- he wants to continue to make it clear to seniors that nothing changes. There are some that continue to use scare tactics, and the President is saying that leadership is about confronting problems and finding solutions. And there are some that want to ignore the problem or try to say there isn't a problem. That's not a solution.

Q Congressman Penny, did he come to you all, or did you go to him?

MR. McCLELLAN: I can double-check. I mean, I'm sure we reached out to him, but he was more than happy to participate in this.

Q Since the State of the Union?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'll double-check. I didn't -- I'll double-check that, and you can check with me later on it.

Q He was on the commission.

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, he was on the President's bipartisan commission. That's correct. And he was someone the President referenced in the State of the Union address, as you mentioned, someone who has expressed some ideas for solving the fiscal problem facing Social Security.

Okay, thanks.

END 11:18 A.M. EST

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