Confirmation of Robert Gates
The President. Good morning, everybody. I’ve got a little statement here, and then I’ll be glad to take a few questions on this chilly morning.
First, I am just delighted about the Gates nomination. And I want to commend the Senate for approving him to be the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a good man, and he has outstanding credentials. And he served the country well. He’s been at my right hand on all the big decisions we’ve had to make about war and peace. And I know he is going to be at CIA an outstanding Director, serving with distinction.
I think yesterday’s vote brings a certain high degree of professionalism, dedicated leadership to an agency that will be undergoing significant change in the world in the years ahead. And, in my view, the Senate did the right thing. The agency could not be in more capable hands.
There are four other votes that deserve comment. Yesterday, the voters of Pennsylvania selected Senator Wofford to be the Senator. And Dick Thornburgh, who served the country as Attorney General, ran a strong campaign, a dignified campaign. He and Ginny have worked long and hard for the State of Pennsylvania and for our country. They’re wonderful people, and I know it must hurt to lose, having been there myself, but I know that Dick has a brilliant career ahead of him.
We’re very pleased. There was a lot of good news for the Republicans. We elected a Governor in Mississippi, the first Republican Governor in this century, a good man, Kirk Fordice. He has pointed the way to change in the South. We believe more and more Republicans will be elected in Southern elections. So, that is very good. Similarly, in the State of New Jersey, it was a blowout. We had a huge swing to Republicans in both the House and the Senate. And in Virginia, right here across the river, the Republicans picked up eight seats in the Senate and now constitute a very, very strong voice in that State’s political authority. Both of these elections bode well for Republican ideas and values.
Upcoming European Trip
Let me comment on the trip. NATO and the American presence in Europe have helped keep the peace for over 40 years, and now I am going to be meeting with the NATO leaders in Rome to talk about the challenges of security in the post-cold war world and the opportunity for partnership with former adversaries. I view this as a very important part of the responsibilities of the President, working for peace around the world.
At The Hague, that is more economic because we’ll be talking about our growing cooperation in helping the democratic transformations in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and the ways of expanding free and fair trade all around the world, something that is going to generate a lot of new business opportunities for American farmers particularly, but manufacturers and service industries as well. For example, just to put this in perspective, we will do more than $200-billion worth of trade this year with the EC nations, and every billion dollars worth of manufactured exports means 20,000 jobs here in the United States.
The best thing for American agriculture, incidentally, is to have a successful conclusion to the GATT talks, to the Uruguay round. The American farmer can compete with anybody, but he’s got to have free and fair access to the markets of Europe. And that is a lot of what we’ll be talking about when we meet with the EC leaders in The Hague.
On the domestic scene, I hate going away with Congress still in session. Heaven knows what will happen, but there is a chance now to pass a growth package which I’ve been advocating for about 2 years now, while the American people are demanding action. Haven’t seen anything coming out of Congress yet that I can accept, but I am not going to give up on that. Fortunately, we’re very serious about getting this economy growing, and we do have strong support, I think, on both sides now for some sensible ideas on growth.
I might say that listening to some, I will just respond this way: We’ve learned the awful price of isolationism — back on what I’m trying to do abroad here — and we’ve learned that protectionism and trade isolation hastened the worst economic depression in modern history. So, we’re going to be proving that we learned those lessons well, and we are going to be, at the same time — we’ve got 2 days more of legislative action this week here, and I want to see them move forward on this unemployment compensation, doing it in a way where the tiny percent that we desperately want to help get helped, but we don’t burden the 95 percent or whatever it is that are paying taxes. I don’t want to do this by breaking the budget agreement in terms of getting the checks to the people whose benefits have run out. So we’ve got to get going on that one as well.
That is about it. There are some other subjects, but I’m glad to take a few questions.
Postponement of Far East Trip
Q. Mr. President, there is a feeling that it’s panic time at the White House, and that you can’t — it’s panic time, that you have cancelled your Asian tour because you are afraid of the voters, the people getting more and more resentful of your foreign travels and having no real solution to the problems of joblessness and so forth. What is your response?
The President. My response is, that’s crazy. I’ll be honest with you, I had thought when this trip was scheduled for the end of November that definitely the Congress would be out of session. The Congress had announced a target date; I think it was for November 4th or November 2d. We’ve passed that date. It’s not surprising. But, nevertheless, that was the date that was announced at the time this trip was set. But I think it is prudent, to use an overworked word, to be around here when the Congress is still in session and especially when you get down to that year-end crunch where a lot of crazy things can happen.
So, I didn’t want to take a chance. This trip has been postponed, not cancelled. It does have some very important aspects, particularly the Japanese leg, as affects jobs for America. But that is the reason, Helen [Helen Thomas, United Press International].
But I can understand the political charges. It was a political day yesterday, and we did very, very well. So, tomorrow they’ll have another political charge.
Q. Well, Mr. President, why shouldn’t people think that you are running scared when the number of people who say they’ll vote for you for reelection has dropped preciptiously, when you’ve cancelled the trip now and your man in Pennsylvania lost badly? Why shouldn’t people think that you’re running scared?
The President. Because our man in Mississippi won big. New Jersey won tremendous. Blew them away in Virginia. And so please just don’t look at part of the glass, the part that is only less than half-full. I am depressed over the Thornburgh race because he’s such a good man, but you look at the overall record and what I stand for and what our party stands for: Had a very good day, thank you. But, look, we’re in the political season. These guys are going to be making all these charges. I’ve told you I don’t live and die by the polls. Thus, I will refrain from pointing out that we’re not doing too bad in those polls. What matters is the people that are hurting. And let’s try to solve the problems for the American people.
But we’ll get these charges. I mean, anything you do in this job, I’ve learned, you take on a little water, get a few hits. If things are going well, why you know, people are smiling and cheering, and when they’re not, you’ve got to redouble your efforts to help people. So, I don’t worry about the criticism, and I’ve told you before, I do not live and die by these polls that go up and down. Having said that, I’ve seen these head-on-heads, and I feel pretty good about it. But that is — I don’t want to start crowing about something when the election is a year away. I’ll be facing a tough fight. All these people that are candidates are tough, and nobody is going to be taking anything for granted.
Yeah, Rita [Rita Beamish, Associated Press]?
Postponement of Far East Trip
Q. You campaigned very vigorously, though, for your man in Pennsylvania, Thornburgh, and it wasn’t even close. I mean, he lost. For a guy who went in with more than a 40-point lead, he lost by something like 10 percentage points. Did you know; did your advisers see that coming yesterday before you cancelled your trip? When did you cancel your trip, and also what are the voters — —
The President. The trip had nothing to do with the election in Pennsylvania. Please, Rita.
Q. Okay. Did you decide to cancel your trip before yesterday?
The President. I talked about it because I’ve been worried. I talked to Bob Michel on the trip to California, and I said, “Are you definitely going to adjourn on the 22d”? And he told me, I hope I’m not talking out of school, “Well, I talked to the Speaker, and he hopes to be out on the 22d. But for the first time he indicated we might not be out on the 22d.” This from the Congress that said they were going to be adjourned on November 2d or November 4th. And I simply think at the end of a congressional session, it is important to be there. All kinds of crazy things can happen with this crowd that controls the Senate and House, and I’d like to be there to protect the American taxpayer and to help the American worker. So, it was in that timeframe that I got to thinking, “Hey, we’d better . . .” — but it had nothing to do with the Pennsylvania election, nor the great victories in New Jersey, in Mississippi, and in Virginia.
Pennsylvania Senatorial Election
Q. Mr. President, when you saw what the issues were in Pennsylvania, what do you think the voters there were saying about Washington, about the status quo?
The President. I just take Senator Wofford at his word, that there is a message here for the administration and a message here for the United States Congress. And I think people — when the economy is slow, people are concerned. They’re hurting out there; they’re concerned about their livelihood. He got a big hand for saying he wants to help on those whose benefits have run out. So do I. We’ve got proposals up there. We could have had those checks in the mail literally weeks ago. But I must protect, try to protect the taxpayers in this country who don’t need another tax increase. A lot of the message in all these elections, I think, had to do with taxes.
But I accept Senator Wofford — he ran a good campaign — accept his explanation that there is a message for the White House, and then I notice he said for the Congress, a Congress that is controlled in both Houses by the Democratic Party. So listen, as far as I’m concerned, we’ll go the extra mile, and we’ll try even harder. But I will try to do it the way I was elected to do it.
Q. Mr. President, one of the potent issues for Senator Wofford was health care. What message do you take from that development in Pennsylvania?
The President. Well, I listen to the message from all these people: Governors, Senators, legislatures. And one of the loud messages was: Don’t raise taxes. One of the messages in Pennsylvania: Try to help people with health care. So you’ve got to balance these two. And we are working, as you know, on the health care issue. And stay tuned because when we get prepared, why, we will be coming forth with something I think is constructive. But you cannot listen to just part of the message. You’ve got to listen to the whole message. And most of the American people at the State level and the gubernatorial level are saying, “Hey, please don’t hit us again on taxes. Please don’t raise our taxes for whatever cause.” The best evidence of that one, check it out, is New Jersey, where they just blew the Democrats away.
Louisiana Gubernatorial Election
Q. Are you going to urge voters in Louisiana to vote against David Duke?
The President. Yes, strongly. We had a great victory in Mississippi yesterday. And Kirk Fordice won a good clean race on fundamental issues. And it is truly unfortunate that the State next door in Louisiana — and they vote next week for Governor — do not have the choice between two good men. We differ with Senator Wofford, but I think the Pennsylvanians had a choice between two decent, good men.
And I’ve got to be careful because I do not want to tell the voters of Louisiana how to cast their ballots next week. That is a right that we all cherish. It’s a personal right. And so they’ve got to make their own decisions.
But when someone asserts that the Holocaust never took place, then I don’t believe that person ever deserves one iota of public trust. And when someone has so recently endorsed nazism, it is inconceivable that such a person can legitimately aspire to leadership — in a leadership role in a free society. And when someone has a long record, an ugly record, of racism and of bigotry, that record simply cannot be erased by the glib rhetoric of a political campaign.
So, I believe that David Duke is an insincere charlatan. I believe he is attempting to hoodwink the voters of Louisiana, and I believe that he should be rejected for what he is and what he stands for.
Q. Mr. President, the economy, sir, has been reported as rather weak in retail sales and consumer confidence. Are you concerned that consumers are not responding to the interest rate cuts that the Federal Reserve has put through and that the economy isn’t coming back, that maybe it’s sliding into recession?
The President. No, I’m not worried about it sliding into recession. I am worried about consumer confidence because I think when you look at historically low interest rates, a lot of people will suddenly wake up and say, “This is a good time to buy a home, a good time to buy a car.” But I worry about it. Of course I do. I worry about it when people are hurting, or think that they’re hurting, or worried about the future; you know, this right-track, wrong-track argument. Yes, I worry about that. But I think we’ve got good programs. If the Congress would move, that would help, not solve it all but would help. And I’ve put forward initiatives for growth that I keep talking about, have been in the State of the Union messages, will continue to talk about until we get action that doesn’t hurt the economy.
There is kind of a panic, kind of a frenzy amongst some legislators who don’t want to get home because they heard the message yesterday loud and clear from the voters. And that message, the frenzy has to do with, “Well, we’d better do something.” We’d better look busy. We’d better accomplish something.” But the “something,” they’d better be careful what it is because the American people do not want to have a higher tax burden. And many of these proposals would do just that, and they also don’t want to pay higher interest rates. You notice when some of the proposals were floated last week, long-term rates shot right through the roof because the market was saying, “Wait a minute. We don’t want to bust this budget agreement.” That is the only safety the taxpayer has, and we don’t want to see ourselves get into some spiral of inflation again.
So, it’s not an easy problem, but do I worry about it when people lack confidence? Of course I do. And I want to try to find ways to help because people are hurting. But some of it is — I think you put your finger on it — there ought to be, in my view, given the economic place where we stand now, more confidence. I’m not trying to say everything is rosy, but I am saying interest rates are down. There is a good chance to do something now in the way of housing or on cars or on whatever that we haven’t had before. And so I think it will come around, but, of course, I worry about it.
Q. Are you going to offer any kind of — —
Reduced Defense Spending
Q. What about a peace dividend? Why not use the peace dividend, the reduction in the military budget?
The President. Well, we’re reducing the military budget, and all I want to do is be sure that it is reduced in a way where I can go to the American people, my foremost responsibility in my mind, and say, “I can guarantee you that the national security is where it should be.” Reckless cuts, no; cuts, yes. And Dick Cheney is working with the Congress on this, and I think we’ll have a good program. And I think it will be at lower levels of spending. We’ve already made some substantial cuts in it. So, yes, I don’t think anything should be exempt, Helen.
Economic Growth Legislation
Q. Are you going to come up with your own package for growth, tying things together, something new?
The President. Well, I think I already have a good growth package, but I am prepared to work with Congress to come up with something new. The trouble is, when both Houses of Congress are controlled by people who look at these issues differently, it is difficult to get the people’s business done. The people do not want to bust the budget agreement; in other words, have more Government spending. They do not want higher taxes, and yet they are interested in health care and in a growth package and all of that. So, it is a delicate situation, but we will continue to work with it. I talked to the leaders before leaving here, and let’s hope something can get done.
Foreign Travel T-shirt
Q. What did you think of the Democrat’s T-Shirt about all your foreign travel?
The President. I haven’t got one yet. Haven’t got one yet. I don’t worry about that.
Term Limitations for Congress
Q. How about the term limit vote, sir?
The President. Mixed reviews on that. Yes, they lost in Washington and won, I gather, in Texas and some other places. So I haven’t really analyzed it yet. I’m for it.
Okay, thank you all.
Q. You’re for term limits?
The President. You got it, Helen.