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

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
March 4, 2005

Press Gaggle with Scott McClellan
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Newark, New Jersey

9:46 A.M. EST

MR. McCLELLAN: First of all, the President called to congratulate Prime Minister-designate Socrates of Portugal on his electoral victory. The two leaders expressed their commitment to strengthening our bilateral and Transatlantic relations, and agreed that the President's trip to Europe helped advance the Transatlantic agenda in support of freedom. They also welcomed the international community's growing commitment to support the Iraqi people as they move forward on the path to democracy.

And then the President had the announcement of his nominee to be the administrator for the EPA. You all have that information, I think. And we've got the two conversations today, and then we're back at the White House. And remind me, and I'll get to the week ahead after whatever questions you guys have.

Q Is Bush setting a May deadline for Syria to withdraw completely from Lebanon?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think the time line that the President has said is that they need to leave now. That's what the President has stated clearly. I don't know what that report is in reference to.

Q It was the interview in the New York Post.

MR. McCLELLAN: What's that?

Q The interview in the New York Post. He basically says they should get out in time for the elections in May.

MR. McCLELLAN: Oh, yes, I got what you're saying. I thought -- at first --

Q So is that, basically, a deadline?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, they have -- what the President was referring to is they have parliamentary elections coming up in May, and we want to make sure that those are free and fair elections, without outside interference. That's what the Lebanese people want. And in order for the Lebanese people -- in order to ensure that the Lebanese people have free and fair elections, Syria needs to get out. That means they need to remove their military forces, it means they need to remove their intelligence services from Lebanon.

And we welcome the statement from Saudi Arabia in support of -- calling on Syria to withdraw immediately. The international community is all saying to Syria that they need to comply with Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for the immediate withdrawal of foreign forces inside Lebanon. And we also welcome comments from others in the international community, like Chancellor Schr der and Russia.

Q Are you encouraged at all -- there was a report that --

MR. McCLELLAN: And that's what the President was referring to, in terms of May, in the interview.

Q So they need to get out by May, basically, in time for those parliamentary --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we want to -- the President continues to say they need to leave now. We are -- the international community is standing with the Lebanese people in their desire to have free and fair elections. And that means Syria needs to get out, so that we can ensure that those -- so that we can ensure those elections are free and fair.

Q There were reports that President Assad is supposed to address the Syrian parliament tomorrow. Are these encouraging signs that there may be movement on this withdrawal issue by the Syrians?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we need to see action, not words. That's what the -- that's what we need to see. We need to see steps taken by Syria to withdraw their forces and their intelligence services.

Q Specifically I think Assad is going to be announcing just a partial withdrawal. Is that in any way satisfactory to the U.S.?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think that the Security Council resolution is very clear on what it calls for. We appreciate the efforts of the French. We've been working closely with the French. And you're seeing more and more people in the international community join the call for Syria to stop interfering in Lebanon. And that means they need to withdraw, and that -- withdraw all their military forces and all their intelligence services from the country.

Q Would the President be happy with some movement, though?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?

Q Would the President be happy with some movement? I mean, I think they're --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think you've heard specifically from the President. He's been very clear on what he has said, that they need to withdraw all their military forces and all their intelligence services. It's more than just military forces that they have inside Lebanon. And we support the aspirations of the Lebanese people to build a future based on democracy and to regain their sovereignty. And that requires any foreign occupation of Syria to end -- I mean, any foreign occupation of Lebanon to end.

Q Can you give us an update on the incentives for Iran? Has the President decided that it's time to --

MR. McCLELLAN: Incentives for Iran? Well, first of all, it's the Europeans who are negotiating or talking with the Iranians. And I think you heard from the President yesterday, and you heard from Secretary Rice, as well, yesterday -- and me, in the briefing, too. What we are talking about is looking at how we can best support the efforts of the Europeans to accomplish our shared goal, and that is getting Iran to end its nuclear weapons ambitions, and to fully comply with its international obligations. That's what this is about. We have continued to discuss matters with our European friends. We want to make sure that we have a common strategy going forward to achieve our common purpose.

Q He's been mulling this over for some time. When is he going to make a decision?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't think it's for "some time." I mean, we're talking about just last week the President had very good discussions with the European leaders. And you saw a very clear unity of purpose coming out of those discussions. That was a strong statement; you heard the President reference it yesterday, how he welcomed the Europeans agreeing on the need to make sure Iran does not develop nuclear weapons. And that's our common purpose. There was some good discussion about some of the ideas for moving the process forward. We want to see the European efforts succeed. We continue to think through some of the ideas that were discussed, and continue to have discussions with our European friends.

Q Is the time line part of the discussions there --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think you've heard us talk about how Iran's non-compliance -- continued non-compliance is grounds for looking to the Security Council. We have continued to believe that their failure to comply with their international obligations should be referred to the Security Council. But there are diplomatic efforts ongoing that we support, and we want to see those diplomatic efforts succeed. But Iran, for 20 years, had a clandestine program that they hid from the international community. And it's time for Iran to come clean and fully comply with their international obligations.

And we appreciate the efforts of our European friends to get them to do that. And that's where our focus is right now, is on how we can support their efforts. So it's not about us providing incentives, as some people have suggested, or not providing incentives, it's about us supporting the efforts of the Europeans to succeed. But if they continue to fail to comply with their international obligation, then there has to be a discussion about the next step. And we have long believed that that next step is referral to the Security Council.

Q Is that something you're seeking assurances from the Europeans that they'll support before you give a nod to their efforts to offer --

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, we'll have -- I expect if there's more to talk -- more to say on the common strategy, we'll do so at that point. But right now, we continue to think through those ideas and look at how we can best support their efforts. And that's where our focus is.

Q On Social Security, with the news this week -- Grassley's comments, Frist, the Democratic attack -- does the President feel he needs to shift message at all or reinforce his message? What is today about?

MR. McCLELLAN: Continuing to clearly define the problems facing Social Security. I think you have seen important progress made in the last several weeks in the sense that more and more people recognize the problems facing Social Security. And it's important for us to have a common understanding of what those problems are. I mean, in just over a decade from now, Social Security is going be experiencing shortfalls. They're not going to be -- they're going to be paying out more than they are taking into the system. Just three years from now, the baby boomers start to retire, and it places great strains on our Social Security system.

So Social Security cannot meet its future benefit promises because it's going broke. And that's why we need to act now to strengthen it. And that's the message the President is continuing to take to the American people. It's important to engage all the American people in this discussion because it affects everybody.

And what we're talking about doing is making sure nothing changes for today's seniors, but making sure that our children and grandchildren have that safety net guarantee. And he may talk about some of that today.

Q Is he going to stress the safety net, maybe, over the private accounts -- just put more emphasis on that?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, personal accounts are part of a comprehensive solution. He'll continue to talk about the importance of personal accounts. But --

Q But is he going to talk more about --

MR. McCLELLAN: But the President is pursuing a comprehensive solution, and we welcome -- we welcome others expressing their ideas for a solution. I mean, people are now starting to talk about solutions. That's a significant step from where we were several weeks ago when some who -- some were initially just saying that there's not a problem, and they were stating, simply, what they're against. Now, people are starting to talk about a solution, and we hope people will continue to work in a constructive way and offer ideas for solving this problem. The President wants to move forward in a bipartisan way. And that's what he's going to continue talking about.

But I expect he'll continue to talk about -- I expect he'll talk about the importance of making sure that that safety net is there for our children and grandchildren. Right now, that safety net does have a big hole in it.

Q More so than in past speeches on Social Security?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you'll be there for today's remarks. These are conversations. So it's not prepared remarks, per se. He has some points that I'm sure he'll want to make.

Q So you don't feel any need to retool the message? Or is it, just keep doing what you're doing, and eventually people will come on board?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, that's what I just pointed out. If you look at survey after survey, it shows that the American people recognize there are serious problems facing Social Security. That's very clear. But it's important to have a clear understanding of what those problems are.

And this is the first stage, as the President has talked about, in our efforts to strengthen Social Security. So we're still in this early stage right now where we're reaching out to the American people, we're reaching out to members of Congress in trying to find a way we can move forward in a -- for a bipartisan solution.

Q Scott, those surveys that you mentioned a couple of times also show the more the President talks, the less Americans seem to trust him on the issue of Social Security, and the less they like the notion of private or personal accounts. What accounts for that?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, the President has talked about some of his ideas for personal accounts. And I think there are surveys that show Americans in support of being able to have the opportunity of owning more of their retirement savings. This is about giving people -- giving all Americans the opportunity to own their retirement savings by giving them a voluntary option of investing in personal accounts. And the President will continue to talk about that.

It was just 30 days -- just over 30 days ago when he outlined his idea for personal accounts in the State of the Union address. And that's part of the solution. But this is a comprehensive -- we need to make Social Security permanently sound. If you recall, that's what the President has talked about. And now you have a lot more people talking about the need to do just that. And so we appreciate the progress that's been made there.

Q I guess I would follow up by saying, you've made progress, people have heard the President's words, they recognize there's a crisis. They also seem to be hearing his words on these other fronts, and trusting him less, and liking private accounts less. So if he's effective on one front, isn't he being quite uneffective on the other?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I disagree, because it's very early in the process, and you're trying to judge the outcome of the game in the very first inning. And, so there's --

Q But it's early enough in the process -- it's early enough in the process to have made a conclusion about whether you're making progress on educating the American people. So they're only listening to part of what he's saying, and not the other part, or they're not smart enough --

MR. McCLELLAN: The focus right now -- absolutely not. In fact, quite the opposite. That's why we trust people to be able to have a -- more say over their own retirement security. We're going to continue talking about the importance of making sure that our children and grandchildren have a secure retirement. There have been some scare tactics out there, saying that this would affect seniors. Well, seniors are learning, that's not the case. It's not going to affect today's seniors. They have their guarantee. We want to make sure that their children and grandchildren have a guarantee. And that's what this is about.

Q Go for it.

MR. McCLELLAN: Oh, week ahead. Monday, lunch with the King and Queen of Norway at the White House. He looks forward to welcoming them to the White House. Then he will go to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he will -- along with Mrs. Bush -- where he will visit Providence Family Support Center, and then make remarks on helping America's youth.

On Tuesday, the President will make remarks on the war on terrorism at the National Defense University in Washington. And then he will meet in the Oval Office with former Presidents Bush and Clinton and receive an update about their tsunami relief efforts and their recent trip to the region.

On Wednesday, March 9th, he'll meet with the President of Romania in the Oval Office, and then he will go to Colombus, where he will tour the Battelle Memorial Institute and make remarks on energy policy.

On Thursday, we've got conversations on strengthening Social Security in Louisville, Kentucky and Montgomery, Alabama. We'll overnight in Memphis, Tennessee.

And then on Friday, we've got conversations in Memphis and then Shreveport, Louisiana.

And on Saturday, the President will attend the Gridiron Club Dinner in Washington.

All right, thanks.

END 10:01 A.M. EST

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