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I Attend Bush's Press Conference | The Nation

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Capital Games

 Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.

I Attend Bush's Press Conference

Below is the verbatim transcript of George W. Bush's first press conference after the election. With one exception. In a Photoshop-like way, I have inserted a kick-ass reporter who asks questions no one else does. But this revised transcript does not include the answers to these questions. My imagination only goes so far.

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you all. Please be seated. Yesterday I pledged to reach out to the whole nation, and today I'm proving that I'm willing to reach out to everybody by including the White House press corps.

Very funny, Mr. President. Can you tell us why you have had far fewer press conferences than any president since Woodrow Wilson and the advent of the modern press conference? Your father, for instance, held 83 press conferences when he was president. As of this past June, you had held only 14. Are you afraid of coming before the media? Do you believe you have no obligation to do so? Is message control more important for you than the free flow of information?

This week the voters of America set the direction of our nation for the next four years. I'm honored by the support of my fellow citizens, and I'm ready for the job.

What do you say about the fact that 49 percent of the electorate did not accept your leadership, your agenda, your issues, your priorities? Does that concern you? If the war in Iraq was so necessary, why does half the nation not see it that way? And are you concerned about all the reports of trouble that occurred with electronic voting on Election Day? Will you support establishing an independent, nonpartisan commission to set effective and national standards for voting and for verfiying vote counts?

We are fighting a continuing war on terror, and every American has a stake in the outcome of this war. Republicans, Democrats and independents all love our country, and together we'll protect the American people.

That's very interesting. Didn't you and Dick Cheney say during the campaign that John Kerry and liberal Democrats could not be trusted to do what is necessary to protect this nation? If they love our country, why is that?

We will preserve -- we will persevere until the enemy is defeated. We will stay strong and resolute. We have a duty, a solemn duty to protect the American people, and we will.

Can you please define the enemy, Mr. President? Is it al Qaeda? Is it Ba'athist remnants in Iraq? Or insurgents who oppose the US presence there? Are we at war with anyone who uses terrorists methods anywhere? And can you tell us what you have done recently to defeat al Qaeda? During the campaign you said that you have captured or killed 75 percent of the al Qaeda leadership. But The Washington Post uncovered classified information showing that this was an exaggeration and that the US has neutralized no more than half of the top 30 al Qaeda targets. Can you explain your use of the 75 percent figure?

Every civilized country also has a stake in the outcome of this war. Whatever our past disagreements, we share a common enemy. And we have common duties: to protect our peoples, to confront disease and hunger and poverty in troubled regions of the world. I'll continue to reach out to our friends and allies, our partners in the EU and NATO, to promote development and progress, to defeat the terrorists and to encourage freedom and democracy as alternatives to tyranny and terror.

After the invasion of Iraq, your administration refused to give out reconstruction contracts to companies coming from nations that did not support your decision to launch a preemptive and elective war. How does that square with your claim that you have reached out to friends and allies?

I also look forward to working with the present Congress and the new Congress that will arrive in January. I congratulate the men and women who have just been elected to the House and the Senate. I will join with old friends and new friends to make progress for all Americans.

Progress for all Americans? How will you do so for, say, gay and lesbian Americans? Will you continue to push for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage? Shortly before the election, you did say you support the notion of civil unions for gays and lesbians. Will you send legislation to Congress to establish civil union rights and employment protections for gays and lesbians? And if you believe this is a matter for states to decide, will you use the bully pulpit of the presidency to encourage your fellow Republicans in the states to craft and implement these protections? And while we're speaking of progress, during your first administration the number of Americans in poverty went up. Is there any reason to believe you will achieve more progress--or less failure--on this front in your second term?

Congress will return later this month to finish this current session. I urge members to pass the appropriations bill that remain, showing spending discipline while focusing on our nation's priorities.

Do you expect to show fiscal discipline? You say you will cut the record-level deficit by half within four years, but various budget watchdogs--including the centrist Concord Coalition--say that your budget and deficit numbers are a sham and that it is more likely you will double the debt in the coming years. Will you order your budget office to put out realistic figures? And then will you produce a realistic plan to cut deficits?

Our government also needs the very best intelligence, especially in a time of war. So I urge the Congress to pass an effective intelligence reform bill that I can sign into law.

The impetus for intelligence reform has come from the 9/11 commission. You, of course, did not initially support establishing such a commission. If intelligence is so important, can you tell us why you did not want to examine the intelligence failures that led to 9/11? And can you tell us whether the commission you set up to look at WMD intelligence is looking at how your administration handled the WMD intelligence it received. And since we're on the subject, why have you not held anyone in the intelligence community accountable for mistakes made prior to 9/11 or for producing misleading intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?

The new Congress that begins its work next year will have serious responsibilities and historic opportunities. To accelerate the momentum of this economy and to keep creating jobs, we must take practical measures to help our job creators, the entrepreneurs and the small business owners. We must confront the frivolous lawsuits that are driving up the cost of health care and hurting doctors and patients. We must continue the work of education reform, to bring high standards and accountability not just to our elementary and secondary schools, but to our high schools, as well.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says that increased malpractice awards have added up to 2 percent to overall health care costs. Surely, there are other factors as well. Is there any reason why you do not cite them? As for education reform, how do you answer the complaints that the No Child Left Behind act has led to chaos in many districts, where well-performing schools have been rated as failing due to technicalities and overly rigid definitions? And will you--as an act of reaching out to the Democrats--promise to fully fund the program?

We must reform our complicated and outdated tax code. We need to get rid of the needless paperwork that makes our economy -- that is a drag on our economy, to make sure our economy is the most competitive in the world.

Tax experts have said that the tax changes you have signed into law has made the tax code much more complicated. Why have you allowed that to happen?

We must show our leadership by strengthening Social Security for our children and our grandchildren. This is more than a problem to be solved; it is an opportunity to help millions of our fellow citizens find security and independence that comes from owning something, from ownership.

You've been talking about Social Security reform since the 2000 campaign. If this is such an important issue for you, can you tell us why you have yet to produce a specific proposal for change? Also, you have supported the idea of allowing younger workers to take some of their payroll tax out of the Social Security revenue stream and place those funds in other retirement accounts. But the transition costs for such a move will probably run between $1 trillion and $2 trillion. This point has been raised repeatedly. Why have you declined to say how you would cover these transition costs? How do you intend to make up for this gap?

In the election of 2004, large issues were set before our country. They were discussed every day on the campaign. With the campaign over, Americans are expecting a bipartisan effort and results. I'll reach out to everyone who shares our goals. And I'm eager to start the work ahead. I'm looking forward to serving this country for four more years.

During the campaign, you did not discuss all these "large issues" every day. You did not say how you would cover those Social Security transition costs. You did not say how you would bring more allies into your Iraq project. You did not discuss the total costs of the war in Iraq. You did not address the growth of poverty in America. Why was that? And when you say you will "reach out to everyone who shares our goals," isn't that a phony promise since what is at issue is often a difference in goals?

I want to thank you all for your hard work in the campaign. I told you that the other day, and you probably thought I was just seeking votes. (Laughter.) But now that you voted, I really meant it. I appreciate the hard work of the press corps. We all put in long hours, and you're away from your families for a long period of time. But the country is better off when we have a vigorous and free press covering our elections. And thanks for your work. Without over-pandering, I'll answer a few questions. (Laughter.)

If you appreciate the press so much, why do you avoid it so much?

Q Mr. President -- thank you. As you look at your second term, how much is the war in Iraq going to cost? Do you intend to send more troops, or bring troops home? And in the Middle East, more broadly, do you agree with Tony Blair that revitalizing the Middle East peace process is the single most pressing political issue facing the world?

THE PRESIDENT: Now that I've got the will of the people at my back, I'm going to start enforcing the one-question rule. That was three questions. (Laughter.)

I'll start with Tony Blair's comments. I agree with him that the Middle East peace is a very important part of a peaceful world. I have been working on Middle Eastern peace ever since I've been the President.

Are you sure of that, Mr. President. It's widely acknowledged that when you first came into office you largely ignored the issue and that you didn't become much engaged until after 9/11. Have you forgotten that?

I've laid down some -- a very hopeful strategy on -- in June of 2002, and my hope is that we will make good progress. I think it's very important for our friends, the Israelis, to have a peaceful Palestinian state living on their border. And it's very important for the Palestinian people to have a peaceful, hopeful future. That's why I articulated a two-state vision in that Rose Garden speech. I meant it when I said it and I mean it now.

What was the other part of your question?

Q Iraq.

THE PRESIDENT: Oh, Iraq, yes. Listen, we will work with the Allawi government to achieve our objective, which is elections, on the path to stability, and we'll continue to train the troops. Our commanders will have that which they need to complete their missions.

Just a few days ago, 60 Minutes aired a report that showed the troops still are not sufficiently supplied. Even now there is not enough body armor and reinforced vehicles. Why is that?

And in terms of the cost, I -- we'll work with OMB and the Defense Department to bring forth to Congress a realistic assessment of what the cost will be.

Excuse me for being a bit cynical, but why was no realistic assessment produced before the election?

Q Thank you, Mr. President. How will you go about bringing people together? Will you seek a consensus candidate for the Supreme Court if there's an opening? Will you bring some Democrats into your Cabinet?

THE PRESIDENT: Again, he violated the one-question rule right off the bat. Obviously, you didn't listen to the will of the people. But, first of all, there's no vacancy for the Supreme Court, and I will deal with a vacancy when there is one. And I told the people on the campaign trail that I'll pick somebody who knows the difference between personal opinion and the strict interpretation of the law. You might have heard that several times. I meant what I said. And if people are interested in knowing the kind of judges I'll pick, look at the record. I've sent up a lot of judges, well-qualified people who know the law, who represent a judicial temperament that I agree with and who are qualified to hold the bench.

But can you tell us, Mr. President, would you like to see Roe v. Wade overturned. You ducked that during the debates. Can you please give us a straight answer on this. Do you believe Roe was correctly decided? Please feel free to give me a one-word reply: yes or no.

The second part of your two-part question?

Q Any Democrats to your Cabinet, by any chance?

THE PRESIDENT: I haven't made any decisions on the Cabinet, yet.

Q How else will you bring people together?

THE PRESIDENT: We'll put out an agenda that everybody understands and work with people to achieve the agenda. Democrats want a free and peaceful world, and we'll -- and right away, right after September the 11th we worked very closely together to secure our country. There is a common ground to be had when it comes to a foreign policy that says the most important objective is to protect the American people and spread freedom and democracy. It's common ground when it comes to making sure the intelligence services are able to provide good, actionable intelligence to protect our people. It's not a Republican issue, it's a Republican and Democrat issue. So I'm -- plenty of places for us to work together.

Mr. President, have you forgotten that during the 2002 congressional campaign, you accused the Democrats of caring more about political advantage than national security. Were you seeking "common ground" when you made that charge?

Q Thank you, Mr. President. On foreign policy, more broadly, do you believe that America has an image problem in the world right now, because of your efforts and response to the 9/11 attacks? And, as you talked down the stretch about building alliances, talk about what you'll do to build on those alliances and to deal with these image problems, particularly in the Islamic world.

THE PRESIDENT: I appreciate that. Listen, I've made some very hard decisions: decisions to protect ourselves, decisions to spread peace and freedom. And I understand in certain capitals and certain countries, those decisions were not popular.

But what do you say to the fact that America's standing in the world is--according to multiple polls overseas--the lowest it has ever been? Can you please address that?

You know, you said -- you asked me to put that in the context of the response on September the 11th. The first response, of course, was chasing down the terror networks, which we will continue to do. And we've got great response around the world in order to do that. There's over 90 nations involved with sharing information, finding terrorists and bringing them to justice. That is a broad coalition, and we'll continue to strengthen it.

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When you're done reading this article,visit David Corn's WEBLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent entries on the latst gossip in the Joseph Wilson/CIA leak investigation and on the importance of keeping politics in America divided.

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I laid out a doctrine, David, that said if you harbor terrorists, you're equally as guilty as the terrorists, and that doctrine was ignored by the Taliban, and we removed the Taliban. And I fully understand some people didn't agree with that decision. But I believe that when the American President speaks, he'd better mean what he says in order to keep the world peaceful. And I believe we have a solemn duty, whether or not people agree with it or not, to protect the American people. And the Taliban and their harboring of al Qaeda represented a direct threat to the American people. And, of course, then the Iraq issue is one that people disagreed with. And there's no need to rehash my case, but I did so, I made the decision I made, in order to protect our country, first and foremost. I will continue to do that as the President. But as I do so, I will reach out to others and explain why I make the decisions I make.

But do you even recognize that America's standing around the world is at a historic low point? Do you care about that? Are you saying that the only problem here is one of poor explanation? Should the United States take action to reverse that trend? If so, what specific steps do you plan to take?

There is a certain attitude in the world, by some, that says that it's a waste of time to try to promote free societies in parts of the world. I've heard that criticism. Remember, I went to London to talk about our vision of spreading freedom throughout the greater Middle East. And I fully understand that that might rankle some, and be viewed by some as folly. I just strongly disagree with those who do not see the wisdom of trying to promote free societies around the world.

Is this the only reason people have criticized the invasion of Iraq? Do you believe that the critics of your actions in Iraq are mostly motivated by a belief that democracy and freedom is not possible in the Middle East?

If we are interested in protecting our country for the long-term, the best way to do so is to promote freedom and democracy. And I -- I simply do not agree with those who either say overtly or believe that certain societies cannot be free. It's just not a part of my thinking. And that's why during the course of the campaign, I was -- I believe I was able to connect, at least with those who were there, in explaining my policy, when I talked about the free election in Afghanistan.

A recent poll taken by the International Republican Institute showed that the most popular political figures in Iraq now are leaders of religious movements. If democracy in Iraq leads to a theocratic state that has a spotty record on personal freedom and that allies itself with Iraq, will that be in the best interest of the United States?

There were -- there was doubt about whether or not those elections would go forward. I'm not suggesting any of you here expressed skepticism. But there was. There was deep skepticism, and -- because there is an attitude among some that certain people may never be free -- they just don't long to be free or incapable of running an election. And I disagree with that. And the Afghan people, by going to the polls in the millions, proved -- proved that this administration's faith in freedom to change peoples' habits is worthy. And that will be a central part of my foreign policy. And I've got work to do to explain to people about why that is a central part of our foreign policy. I've been doing that for four years.

You have repeatedly said that critics of your actions overseas don't believe that Muslims and others yearn to be free and are capable of democracy. Can you point to a single example of a prominent critic making that argument?

But if you do not believe people can be free and can self-govern, then all of a sudden the two-state solution in the Middle East becomes a moot point, invalid. If you're willing to condemn a group of people to a system of government that hasn't worked, then you'll never be able to achieve the peace. You cannot lead this world and our country to a better tomorrow unless you see a better -- if you have a vision of a better tomorrow. And I've got one, based upon a great faith that people do want to be free and live in democracy.

Are you familiar with happened in Algeria?

John, and then I'll get to Terry. No follow-ups today, Gregory.

Q Thank you, sir.

Why no follow-ups? If you don't directly address a question, shouldn't a reporter be allowed to follow up and try to extract a relevant reply from you? Do you not ask follow up questions when your aides make presentations to you?

THE PRESIDENT: I can see one -- yes.

Q Would you like it? Now that the political volatility is off the issue because the election is over, I'd like to ask you about troop levels in Iraq in the next couple of months leading up to elections. The Pentagon already has a plan to extend tours of duty for some 6,500 U.S. troops. How many more will be needed to provide security in Iraq for elections, seeing as how the Iraqi troops that you're trying to train up are pretty slow coming on line?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, first of all, the -- we are making good progress in training the Iraqi troops. There will be 125,000 of them trained by election time. Secondly, I have yet to -- I have not sat down with our Secretary of Defense talking about troop levels. I read some reports during the course of the campaign where some were speculating in the press corps about the number of troops needed to protect elections. That has not been brought to my attention yet.

For the past year, your administration has repeatedly overstated the number of troops and Iraqi security forces being trained and actually deployed. Why should we believe you now?

And so I would caution you that what you have either read about or reported was pure speculation thus far. These elections are important, and we will respond, John, to requests of our commanders on the ground. And I have yet to hear from our commanders on the ground that they need more troops.

Before the war, the Army chief of staff said that you would need several hundred troops to secure Iraq after the invasion. Yet your administration pooh-poohed his statements. Now it is widely acknowledged that more troops were necessary at that time. The United States in the aftermath of the war was unable to secure explosives and WMD sites and was unable to provide security to the people of Iraq. Why were there not enough troops in Iraq during and after the invasion? If your answer is that you did not receive a request from the commanders, then do you believe that the commanders--or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld--were at fault for not preparing adequately?

Q Mr. President, your victory at the polls came about in part because of strong support from people of faith, in particular, Christian evangelicals and Pentecostals and others. And Senator Kerry drew some of his strongest support from those who do not attend religious services. What do you make of this religious divide, it seems, becoming a political divide in this country? And what do you say to those who are concerned about the role of a faith they do not share in public life and in your policies?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, my answer to people is, I will be your President regardless of your faith, and I don't expect you to agree with me necessarily on religion. As a matter of fact, no President should ever try to impose religion on our society.

But aren't you prepared to impose your moral views on the nation by banning gay marriage? Ditto with abortion and stem cell research? Aren't your position on these issues affected by your religious views?

A great -- the great tradition of America is one where people can worship the way they want to worship. And if they choose not to worship, they're just as patriotic as your neighbor. That is an essential part of why we are a great nation. And I am glad people of faith voted in this election. I'm glad -- I appreciate all people who voted. I don't think you ought to read anything into the politics, the moment, about whether or not this nation will become a divided nation over religion. I think the great thing that unites is the fact you can worship freely if you choose, and if you -- you don't have to worship. And if you're a Jew or a Christian or a Muslim, you're equally American. That is -- that is such a wonderful aspect of our society; and it is strong today and it will be strong tomorrow.

Did you and your campaign make a concerted effort to mobilize Christian fundamentalists? And why did you not publicly criticize the Republicans Party for sending out mailings in Arkansas and West Virginia that claimed Democrats would ban the Bible if they were to win the election? Was that not a divisive and dirty campaign tactic? As the titular head of the Republican Party, shouldn't you apologize for that and ask for the resignations of the people involved in that episode?

Q Thank you, sir. Mr. President, you talked once again this morning about private accounts in Social Security. During the campaign you were accused of planning to privatize the entire system. It has been something you've discussed for some time. You've lost some of the key Democratic proponents, such as Pat Moynihan and Bob Kerrey in the Congress. How will you proceed now with one of the key problems, which is the transition cost -- which some say is as much as $2 trillion -- how will you proceed on that? And how soon?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, first, I made Social Security an issue -- for those of you who had to suffer through my speeches on a daily basis; for those of you who actually listened to my speeches on a daily basis -- you might remember, every speech I talked about the duty of an American President to lead. And we have -- we must lead on Social Security because the system is not going to be whole for our children and our grandchildren.

And so the answer to your second question is, we'll start on Social Security now. We'll start bringing together those in Congress who agree with my assessment that we need to work together. We've got a good blueprint, a good go-by. You mentioned Senator Moynihan. I had asked him prior to his -- to his passing, to chair a committee of notable Americans to come up with some ideas on Social Security. And they did so. And it's a good place for members of Congress to start.

The President must have the will to take on the issue -- not only in the campaign, but now that I'm elected. And this will -- reforming Social Security will be a priority of my administration. Obviously, if it were easy it would have already been done. And this is going to be hard work to bring people together and to make -- to convince the Congress to move forward. And there are going to be costs. But the cost of doing nothing is insignificant to -- is much greater than the cost of reforming the system today. That was the case I made on the campaign trail, and I was earnest about getting something done. And as a matter of fact, I talked to members of my staff today, as we're beginning to plan to -- the strategy to move agendas forward about how to do this and do it effectively.

Well, once again, Mr. President, you dodged a key issue: what's your plan for paying for those $2 trillion in transition costs. Why won't you address this matter? Why should anyone regard you as serious about reforming Social Security if you have no answer for this $2 trillion question?

Q If I could, Mr. President --

THE PRESIDENT: Yes -- no, no, you're violating the follow-up rule. It would hurt Gregory's feelings. King.

How long do you intend to enforce your no-follow-up rule? Can we expect this during your entire second term? Would you like us to submit out questions in advance?

Q Mr. President, thank you.

Q That's always one of my concerns.

THE PRESIDENT: Hurting Gregory's feelings? He is a sensitive guy. Well centered, though. (Laughter.)

Q I'm not going there. Mr. President, you were disappointed, even angry 12 years ago when the voters denied your father a second term. I'm interested in your thoughts and the conversation with him yesterday as you were walking to the Oval Office, and also whether you feel more free to do any one thing in a second term that perhaps you were politically constrained from doing in a first.

THE PRESIDENT: At 3:30 a.m. in the morning on, I guess, it was the day after the election, he was sitting upstairs, and I finally said, go to bed. He was awaiting the outcome and was hopeful that we would go over and be able to talk to our supporters, and it just didn't happen that way. So I asked him the next morning when he got up, I said, come by the Oval Office and visit. And he came by and we had a good talk. He was heading down to Houston. And it was -- there was some uncertainty about that morning as to when the election would actually end. And it wasn't clear at that point in time, so I never got to see him face-to-face to watch his, I guess, pride in his tired eyes as his son got a second term. I did talk to him and he was relieved. I told him to get a nap. I was worried about him staying up too late.

But -- so I haven't had a chance to really visit and embrace. And you're right, '92 was a disappointment. But he taught me a really good lesson, that life moves on. And it's very important for those of us in the political arena, win or lose, to recognize that life is bigger than just politics, and that's one of the really good lessons he taught me.

When Bob Woodward interviewed you, he asked if you had sought advice from your father before ordering the invasion of Iraq. You replied that "he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength; there is a higher father that I appeal to." Did you really not ask your father about initiating a war in Iraq? Why would you not do that? Did you not think that he would have anything useful to say on the subject? And can you tell us how you go about appealing to this "higher father"? Your remark to Woodward suggests you saw appealing to God as a substitute for consulting a former president with experience in this area.

Q Do you feel more free, sir?

THE PRESIDENT: Oh, in terms of feeling free, well, I don't think you'll let me be too free. There's accountability and there are constraints on the presidency, as there should be in any system. I feel -- I feel it is necessary to move an agenda that I told the American people I would move. Something refreshing about coming off an election, even more refreshing since we all got some sleep last night, but there's -- you go out and you make your case, and you tell the people this is what I intend to do. And after hundreds of speeches and three debates and interviews and the whole process, where you keep basically saying the same thing over and over again, that when you win, there is a feeling that the people have spoken and embraced your point of view, and that's what I intend to tell the Congress, that I made it clear what I intend to do as the President, now let's work to -- and the people made it clear what they wanted, now let's work together.

And it's one of the wonderful -- it's like earning capital. You asked, do I feel free. Let me put it to you this way: I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style. That's what happened in the -- after the 2000 election, I earned some capital. I've earned capital in this election -- and I'm going to spend it for what I told the people I'd spend it on, which is -- you've heard the agenda: Social Security and tax reform, moving this economy forward, education, fighting and winning the war on terror.

Dick Cheney said you have a "mandate." Do you believe that with 49 percent of the electorate saying "no" to you (and 40 or so percent of people not voting) that you do have a "mandate"? This is the most narrow win for a sitting president since Woodrow Wilson. What does that say to you?

We will continue to press forward on the HIV/AIDS initiative, the Millennium Challenge Account. We will continue to do our duty to help feed the hungry. And I'm looking forward to it, I really am.

It's been a -- it's been a fantastic experience campaigning the country. You've seen it from one -- perspective, I've seen it from another. I saw you standing there at the last, final rally in Texas, to my right over there. I was observing you observe, and you saw the energy. And there was just something uplifting about people showing up at 11:00 p.m. at night, expressing their support and their prayers and their friendship. It's a marvelous experience to campaign across the country.

Since you have referred to the energy at your campaign rallies, why is it that your campaign closely screened audiences and refused to allow people who were not Bush supporters to attend theses events? There were numerous reports of people being blocked from your events or thrown out if they were critics or were not backers of your campaign. Some protesters--who were not disruptive--were arrested. If you are the president of all Americans, shouldn't all Americans have a chance to see you when you campaign?

Q Mr. President -- thank you, Mr. President. Do you plan to reshape your Cabinet for the second term, or will any changes come at the instigation of individuals? And as part of the same question, may I ask you what you've learned about Cabinet government, what works, what doesn't work? And do you mind also addressing the same question about the White House staff? (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: The post-election euphoria did not last very long here at the press conference. (Laughter.) Let me talk about the people that have worked with me. I had a Cabinet meeting today and I thanked them for their service to the country and reminded them we've got a job to do and I expected them to do the job. I have made no decisions on my Cabinet and/or White House staff. I am mindful that working in the White House is really -- is exhausting work. The people who you try to get to leak to you spend hours away from their families, and it is -- the word "burnout" is oftentimes used in the -- in Washington, and it's used for a reason, because people do burn out.

And so obviously, in terms of those who are -- who want to stay on and who I want to stay on, I've got to make sure that it's right for their families and that they're comfortable, because when they come to work here in the White House, I expect them to work as hard as they possibly can on behalf of the American people.

Do you expect that the administration officials who were responsible for leaking the CIA identity of the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson will still be working in your new administration? If the Justice Department investigation of this leak does not result in indictments, will you take any of your own steps to determine who leaked this information--which harmed national security and ruined the career of a public servant dedicated to protecting America from the threat of WMDs--and make sure they no longer work for you?

In the Cabinet, there will be some changes. I don't know who they will be. It's inevitable there will be changes. It happens in every administration. To a person, I am proud of the work they have done. And I fully understand we're about to head into the period of intense speculation as to who's going to stay and who's not going to stay, and I assured them that -- today I warned them of the speculative period. I said, it's a great Washington sport to be talking about who's going to leave and who their replacements may be, and handicapping, you know, my way of thinking.

I'll just give you -- but let me just help you out with the speculation right now. I haven't thought about it. I'm going to start thinking about it. I'm going to Camp David this afternoon with Laura, and I'll begin the process of thinking about the Cabinet and the White House staff. And we'll let you know at the appropriate time when decisions have been made. And so, nice try, Mike.

Yes, Ed, and then --

Q What you learned --

THE PRESIDENT: Learned and not learned about the Cabinet?

Q What works, what doesn't.

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, well, first I've learned that I put together a really good Cabinet.

The question was what you learned about Cabinet-style government. Why did you take that as an invitation to praise your own actions?

I'm very proud of the people that have served this government, and they -- to a man and a woman, worked their hearts out for the American people. And I've learned that you've got to continue to surround yourself with good people. This is a job that requires crisp decision-making, and therefore, in order for me to make decisions, I've got to have people who bring their point of view into the Oval Office and are willing to say it.

Why were there few, if any, Cabinet-level discussions about how to plan for the post-invasion period in Iraq? You had many meetings with General Tommy Franks about the war plans. Why did you not sit down with your Cabinet heads to discuss the security, economic, political, military and legal challenges you would face following the invasion? And can you tell us why you have gone through several chief terrorism advisers since 9/11? This is arguably one of the most important jobs in your administration. Why can't you keep someone in that post?

I always jest to people, the Oval Office is the kind of place where people stand outside, they're getting ready to come in and tell me what for, and they walk in and get overwhelmed in the atmosphere, and they say, man, you're looking pretty. And therefore, you need people to walk in on those days when you're not looking so good and saying, you're not looking so good, Mr. President. And I've got -- those are the kind of people that served our country. We've had vigorous debates, which you all, during the last four years, took great delight in reporting, differences of opinion. But that's what you want if you're the Commander-in-Chief and a decision-maker. You want people to walk in and say, I don't agree with this, or I do agree with that, and here's what my recommendation is. But the President also has to learn to decide. You take, you know -- there's ample time for the debate to take place, and then decide and make up your mind and lead. That's what the job's all about. And so I have learned how important it is to be -- to have a really fine group of people that think through issues, and that are not intimidated by the process, and who walk in and tell me what's on their mind.

Did you invite Cabinet members to argue the case against invading Iraq before your launched the war? Did you ask experts from outside the administration to do so? According to the public record, you did not. If that is true, why not?

Q Good morning. Sir, does it bother you that there's a perception out there that your administration has been one that favors big business and the wealthy individuals? And what can you do to overcome that, sir?

THE PRESIDENT: Ed, 70 percent of the new jobs in America are created by small businesses. I understand that. And I have promoted during the course of the last four years one of the most aggressive, pro-entrepreneur, small business policies. Tax relief -- you might remember -- I don't know if you know this or not, but 90 percent of the businesses are sole proprietorships or subchapter-S corporations. (Laughter.)

Q We've heard it.

THE PRESIDENT: Tax relief helped them. This is an administration that fully understands that the job creators are the entrepreneurs. And so in a new term, we will make sure the tax relief continues to be robust for our small businesses. We'll push legal reform and regulatory reform because I understand the engine of growth is through the small business sector.

As was noted in various media accounts during the campaign, this 90 percent figure is exaggerated. Still, poll after poll shows that most voters believe you care more about corporations than you do about them. You haven't explained why that is. Could it be that because the top 1 percent received more than 50 percent of the benefits of your tax cuts?

Stevenson.

Q Sir, given your commitment to reaching out across party lines and to all Americans, I wonder if you could expand on your definition of bipartisanship, and whether it means simply picking off a few Democrats on a case-by-case basis to pass the bills you want to pass, or whether you would commit to working regularly with the Democratic leadership on solutions that can win broad support across party lines?

THE PRESIDENT: Do you remember the No Child Left Behind Act? I think there the model I'd look at if I were you. It is a -- I laid out an agenda for reforming our public schools. I worked with both Republicans and Democrats to get that bill passed. In a new term, we'll continue to make sure we do not weaken the accountability standards that are making a huge difference in people's lives, in these kids' lives.

But you do know that the Democrats have accused you of not keeping your commitment to fully fund the bill. They say your professed bipartisanship in this instance was a case of bait-and-switch. Are they lying?

But that's the model I'd look at, if I were you. And we'll -- there's a certain practicality to life here in Washington. And that is, when you get a bill moving it is important to get the votes, and if politics starts to get in the way of getting good legislation through, you know, that's just part of life here. But I'm also focused on results. I think of the Medicare bill -- you might remember that old, stale debate. We finally got a bill moving. I was hoping that we'd get strong bipartisan support -- unfortunately, it was an election year. But we got the votes necessary to get the bill passed. And so we will -- I will -- my goal is to work on the ideal and to reach out and to continue to work and find common ground on issues.

Since you brought up the Medicare drug benefits bill, that act made it illegal for the federal government to negotiate mass purchases of drugs from pharmaceutical companies for Medicare. This was widely seen as a boon for the pharmaceutical industry. Why did you support that? If you were seeking a bipartisan bill, why did you not back the several Democratic amendments that would have addressed this issue and other limited matters?

On the other hand, I've been wizened to the ways of Washington. I watched what can happen during certain parts of the cycle, where politics gets in the way of good policy. And at that point in time, I'll continue to -- you know, I'll try to get this done, I'll try to get our bills passed in a way, because results really do matter, as far as I'm concerned. I really didn't come here to hold the office just to say, gosh, it was fun to serve. I came here to get some things done, and we are doing it. Yes, Big Stretch.

Q Thank you, Mr. President. I know you haven't had a chance to learn this, but it appears that Yasser Arafat has passed away. [Editor's note: this question was based on an incorrect media account.]

THE PRESIDENT: Really?

Q And I was just wondering if I could get your initial reaction? And also your thoughts on, perhaps, working with a new generation of Palestinian leadership?

THE PRESIDENT: I appreciate that. My first reaction is, God bless his soul. And my second reaction is, is that we will continue to work for a free Palestinian state that's at peace with Israel.

Q Mr. President, as you look at your second term domestic priorities, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how you see the sequence of action on issues beyond Social Security -- tax reform, education. And if you could expand a little bit for us on the principles that you want to underpin your tax reform proposal -- do you want it to be revenue neutral? What kinds of things do you want to accomplish through that process?

THE PRESIDENT: I appreciate that. I was anticipating this question; that, what is the first thing you're going to do? When it comes it legislation, it just doesn't work that way, particularly when you've laid out a comprehensive agenda. And part of that comprehensive agenda is tax simplification. The -- first of all, a principle would be revenue neutral. If I'm going to -- if there was a need to raise taxes, I'd say, let's have a tax bill that raises taxes, as opposed to let's simply the tax code and sneak a tax increase on the people. It's just not my style. I don't believe we need to raise taxes. I've said that to the American people. And so the simplification would be the goal.

Many experts say that tax simplification without winners and losers is nearly impossible. Are you willing to submit your tax simplification proposal to an independent board or commission of experts who can determine if it truly does not disproportionately reward the well-to-do taxpayers?

Now, secondly, that obviously, that it rewards risk and doesn't -- it doesn't have unnecessary penalties in it. But the main thing is that it would be viewed as fair, that it would be a fair system, that it wouldn't be complicated, that there's a -- kind of that loopholes wouldn't be there for special interests, that the code itself be viewed and deemed as a very fair way to encourage people to invest and save and achieve certain fiscal objectives in our country, as well. One of the interesting debates will be, of course, in the course of simplification, will there be incentives in the code: charitable giving, of course, and mortgage deductions are very important. As governor of Texas, when I -- some time I think I was asked about simplification, I always noted how important it was for certain incentives to be built into the tax code, and that will be an interesting part of the debate.

Certain issues come quicker than others in the course of a legislative session, and that depends upon whether or not those issues have been debated. I think of, for example, the legal issue -- the legal reform issues, they have been -- medical liability reform had been debated and got thwarted a couple of times in one body in particular on Capitol Hill. And so the groundwork has been laid for some legislation that I've been talking about. On an issue like tax reform it's going to -- tax simplification, it's going to take a lot of legwork to get something ready for a legislative package. I fully understand that. And Social Security reform will require some additional legwork, although the Moynihan Commission has laid the groundwork for what I think is a very good place to start the debate.

I hate to be repetitive, Mr. President. But why have you not done the legwork for Social Security reform by coming up with a specific proposal that takes into account the need to cover the $2 trillion in transition costs. You've had five years.

The education issue is one that could move pretty quickly because there has been a lot of discussion about education. It's an issue that the members are used to debating and discussing. And so I think -- all issues are important. And the timing of issues as they reach it through committee and floor really depend upon whether or not some work has already been on those issues. A couple more questions. Bob.

Q Mr. President, American forces are gearing up for what appears to be a major offensive in Fallujah over the next several days. I'm wondering if you could tell us what the objective is, what the stakes are there for the United States, for the Iraqi people, and the Iraqi elections coming up in January?

THE PRESIDENT: In order for Iraq to be a free country those who are trying to stop the elections and stop a free society from emerging must be defeated. And so Prime Minister Allawi and his government, which fully understands that, are working with our generals on the ground to do just that. We will work closely with the government. It's their government, it's their country. We're there at their invitation. And -- but I think there's a recognition that some of these people have to -- must be defeated, and so that's what they're thinking about. That's what you're -- that's why you're hearing discussions about potential action in Fallujah.

Why have you waited so long to take such action in Fallujah? Did you not want to have a major strike before the election?

Heidi.

Q Thank you, sir. Many within your own party are unhappy over the deficit, and they say keeping down discretional spending alone won't help you reach the goal of halving the deficit in five years. What else do you plan to do to cut costs?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I -- I would suggest they look at our budget that we've submitted to Congress, which does, in fact, get the deficit down -- cut in half in five years, and is a specific line-by-line budget that we are required to submit and have done so.

No serious budget-watcher believes the White House numbers, Mr. President. They don't account for the cost of the war in Iraq. They do not account for changing the Alternative Minimum Tax, which you have to do to prevent this tax from socking middle-class taxpayers. When will you produce real-world numbers?

The key to making sure that the deficit is reduced is for there to be, on the one hand, spending discipline, and I -- as you noticed in my opening remarks, I talked about these appropriations bills that are beginning to move, and I thought I was pretty clear about the need for those bills to be -- to be fiscally responsible, and I meant it. And I look forward to talking to the leadership about making sure that the budget agreements we had are still the budget agreements, that just because we had an election, that they shouldn't feel comfortable changing our agreement. And I think they understand that. And secondly, the other way to make sure that the deficit is -- decreases, is to grow the economy. As the economy grows, there will be more revenues coming into the Treasury. That's what you have seen recently. If you notice, there's been some write-downs of the budget deficit. In other words, the deficit is less than we thought because the revenues is exceeding projections. And the reason why the revenues -- the revenues are exceeding projections -- sometimes I mangle the English language. I get that. (Laughter.)

In talking about the deficits, you have blamed the economic downturn, 9/11, and the subsequent war. But the CBO has concluded that your tax cuts contributed to the high deficits. Do you accept any responsibility for adding to the deficits?

Q Inside joke.

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, very inside. (Laughter.) The revenues are exceeding projections. And as a result, the projected deficit is less. But my point there is, is that with good economic policy that encourages economic growth, the revenue streams begin to increase. And as the revenue streams increase, coupled with fiscal discipline, you'll see the deficit shrinking. And we're focused on that.

I do believe there ought to be budgetary reform in Washington, on the Hill, Capitol Hill. I think it's very important. I would like to see the President have a line-item veto again, one that passed constitutional muster. I think it would help the executive branch work with the legislative branch, to make sure that we're able to maintain budget discipline. I've talked to a lot of members of Congress who are wondering whether or not we'll have the will to confront entitlements, to make sure that there is entitlement reform that helps us maintain fiscal discipline. And the answer is, yes; that's why I took on the Social Security issue. I believe we have a duty to do so. I want to make sure that the Medicare reforms that we've put in place remain robust, to help us make sure Medicare is available for generations to come. And so there is a -- I've got quite an active agenda to help work with Congress to bring not only fiscal discipline, but to make sure that our pro-growth policies are still in place.

Your White House has prepared budget documents calling for spending cuts in social programs, such as school lunches and after-school childcare for low-income families. Do you believe we should cut such programs? If no, do you pledge they will not be cut?.

Herman. I'm probably going to regret this. (Laughter.)

Q I don't know if you had a chance to check, but I can report you did eke out a victory in Texas the other day.

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, sir.

Q Congratulations. I'm interested in getting back to Steven -- Stevenson's question about unity. Clearly, you believe you have reached out and will continue to reach out. Do you believe the Democrats have made a sincere and sufficient effort to meet you somewhere halfway, and do you think now there's more reason for them the do that in light of the election results?

THE PRESIDENT: I think that Democrats agree that we have an obligation to serve our country. I believe there will be goodwill, now that this election is over, to work together.

Why should there be any goodwill after you employed mockery, derision and false accusations to attack the Democrats' presidential nominee? You said he regarded terrorism as a "nuisance." He did not say that. You said he believed that other nations should be able to veto US national security decisions. He said he would not submit US actions to foreign vetoes. And there are other examples I could cite. Should he and his supporters simply forgive and forget and grant you goodwill because you eked out a close win with such tactics?

I found that to be the case when I first arrived here in Washington, and working with the Democrats and fellow Republicans, we got a lot done. And it is with that spirit that I go into this coming session, and I will meet with both Republican and Democrat leaders, and I am -- they'll see I'm genuine about working toward some of these important issues.

It's going to be -- it's not easy. These -- I readily concede I've laid out some very difficult issues for people to deal with. Reforming the Social Security system for generations to come is a difficult issue; otherwise, it would have already been done. But it is necessary to confront it. And I would hope to be able to work with Democrats to get this done. I'm not sure we can get it done without Democrat participation, because it is a big issue, and I will explain to them and I will show them Senator Moynihan's thinking as a way to begin the process. And I will remind everybody here that we have a duty to leave behind a better America, and when we see a problem, to deal with it. And I think the -- I think Democrats agree with that.

And so I'm optimistic. You covered me when I was the governor of Texas. I told you that I was going to do that as a governor. There was probably skepticism in your beady eyes there. (Laughter.) But you might remember -- you might remember, we did -- we were able to accomplish a lot by -- and Washington is different from Austin, no question about it. Washington -- one of the disappointments of being here in Washington is how bitter this town can become and how divisive. I'm not blaming one party or the other. It's just the reality of Washington, D.C., sometimes exacerbated by you, because it's great sport.

Mr. President, do you believe that you and your Republican allies have exacerbated that divisiveness with your own rhetoric and political attacks on Democrats? What about the GOP ads in 2002 that questioned the commitment of Senator Max Cleland--who lost three limbs in Vietnam--to the nation's security? What about your never-ending efforts during the campaign to misrepresent your opponent's stance on health care. You falsely called his proposal a "government takeover" of the health care system.

It's really -- it's entertaining for some. It also makes is difficult to govern at times. But nevertheless, my commitment is there. I fully -- now more seasoned to Washington, I've cut my political eyeteeth, at least the ones I've recently grown here in Washington. And so I'm aware of what can happen in this town. But nevertheless, having said that, I am fully prepared to work with both Republican and Democrat leadership to advance an agenda that I think makes a big difference for the country.

Listen, thank you all. I look forward to working with you. I've got a question for you. How many of you are going to be here for a second term? Please raise your hand. (Laughter.) Good. Gosh, we're going to have a lot of fun, then. Thank you all.

Fun--what fun do you expect to have in Iraq? By the way, when will we see you next, Mr. President? Will you commit to at least one press conference a month? What do you have to lose? After all, how many tough questions did you get in this one?

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