Barack Obama's president-elect press conference - 25 November 2008
I speak to you today, mindful that we meet at a moment of great challenge for America, as our credit markets are stressed, and our families are struggling. But as difficult as these times are, I’m confident that we will rise to meet this challenge – if we’re willing to band together and recognize that Wall Street cannot thrive so long as Main Street is struggling; if we’re willing to summon a new spirit of ingenuity and determination; and if Americans of great intellect, broad experience, and good character are willing to serve in government at this hour of need.
Yesterday, I announced four such Americans to help lead the economic team that will advise me as we seek to climb out of this crisis. Today, Vice President-elect Biden and I are pleased to announce two other key members of our team – Peter Orszag as Director and Robert Nabors as Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Before I explain why I selected these outstanding public servants, let me just say a word about the work I am asking them to undertake. As I said yesterday, the economic crisis we face demands that we invest immediately in a series of measures that will help save or create two and a half million jobs and put tax cuts in the pockets of the hard-pressed middle class. Many of those new jobs will come in areas such as energy independence, technology, and health care modernization that will strengthen our economy for the future. But if we’re going to make the investments we need, we must also be willing to shed the spending we don’t. In these challenging times, when we are facing both rising deficits and a sinking economy, budget reform is not an option. It is an imperative. We cannot sustain a system that bleeds billions of taxpayer dollars on programs that have outlived their usefulness, or exist solely because of the power of a politician, lobbyist, or interest group. We simply cannot afford it.
This isn’t about big government or small government. It’s about building a smarter government that focuses on what works. That is why I will ask my team to think anew and act anew to meet our new challenges. We will go through our federal budget – page by page, line by line – eliminating those programs we don’t need, and insisting that those we do operate in a sensible cost-effective way.
Let me give you one example of what I’m talking about. There’s a report today that from 2003 to 2006, millionaire farmers received $49 million in crop subsidies even though they were earning more than the $2.5 million cutoff for such subsidies. If this is true, it is a prime example of the kind of waste I intend to end as President.
And we will also focus on one of the biggest, long-run challenges that our budget faces – namely, the rising cost of health care in both the public and private sectors. This is not just a challenge but also an opportunity to improve the health care that Americans rely on and to bring down the costs that taxpayers, businesses, and families have to pay.
That is what the OMB will do in my administration – it will not only help design a budget and manage its implementation, it will also help make sure that our government – your government – is more efficient and more effective at serving the American people.
There is no better person to help lead this effort as Director of the OMB than my friend Peter Orszag. Peter has been one of our nation’s leading voices on budgetary issues. It is said that a nation’s budget reflects its priorities. I believe that is true. And I know that Peter will bring to his work at the OMB a set of priorities that I – and the American people – share.
Throughout his career, he has made significant contributions in our understanding of all the major economic challenges we are now confronting – from reducing medical costs to saving Social Security to fighting global climate change to helping put the dream of a college degree within reach for more students.
As Director of the Congressional Budget Office, he reenergized and reinvigorated the agency, while shifting its focus to confront the health care crisis that is not only a cause of so much suffering for so many families, but a rapidly growing portion of our budget and a drag on our entire economy.
But it is not simply Peter’s past career that makes him qualified for his new appointment, it is his vision for the future. He believes, as I do, that even as we take steps to restore discipline to our budget, we must also take the steps right now that are necessary to solve our immediate crisis.
Peter doesn’t need a map to tell him where the bodies are buried in the federal budget. He knows what works and what doesn’t, what is worthy of our precious tax dollars and what is not. Just because a program, a special interest tax break or corporate subsidy is tucked into this year’s budget, does not mean it should survive the next. The old ways of Washington simply can’t meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.
And no one is more able or more qualified to assist Peter in this work as Deputy Director of the OMB than Robert Nabors. Rob will bring to this post experience in the executive branch, at the OMB, where he helped the Clinton administration achieve balanced budgets, as well as in the legislative branch, where he led the appropriations committee staff as a driving force for a responsible budget. Together with Peter, Rob will help steer our budget through Congress so that I can sign it into law.
Now, let me be clear: these appointments and the appointments I announced yesterday are not the sum of my economic team. These appointees will work with those I have yet to announce – including the secretaries of Energy and Labor, Commerce and Health and Human Services and others in my administration – to design a recovery plan for both Wall Street and Main Street, and to put our economy on a path to long-term growth and prosperity.
Because at this moment, we must not only restore confidence in our markets. We must also restore the confidence of middle class families that their government is on their side – that it’s working for them – on their behalf – to meet their families’ needs. And that is exactly what I intend to do as President of the United States of America.
With that, I'm going to take a few questions, and I'm going to start with Savannah.
Savannah: Thank you, sir.
Savannah: Is this a greater degree of public involvement in the economy than you – sooner than you had originally planned? And if so, how do you square it with your reminder to us that there is only one president at a time?
Obama: Well, there is only one president at a time. That president is George W. Bush, and he will be president until I'm sworn in on January 20th. Given the extraordinary circumstances that we find ourselves in, however, I think it is very important for the American people to understand that we are putting together a first-class team and for them to have clarity that we don't intend to stumble into the next administration.
We are going to hit the ground running. We're going to have clear plans of action. We intend to have the kind of economic recovery plan that is going to put 2.5 million people into jobs. We are going to make sure that we start focusing on energy, on health care, on revamping our education system so that it's competitive in the 21st century, and as I'm talking about today, that we are not going to back to business as usual when it comes to our budget.
I mean, one of the concerns that people may have is, you've got this large stimulus package that the new president is proposing and members of Congress are talking about. Is this going to be more of the same, when it comes to Washington spending? And the answer, I want to be very clear, is no. We are going to have to jump-start the economy. And there's consensus that that requires a bold plan to make the investments in the future.
But we have to make sure that those investments are wise. We have to make sure that we're not wasting money in every area. If there is – if we're talking about health care, we want to put money into health care modernization that can help us save money over the long term. We don't want to continue programs that aren't working and making people healthier. The same is true of – for education. The same is true in the Defense Department. The same is true in social spending.
So the fact that Rob and Peter are here today indicates the seriousness with which we're taking this. And I think it's important, given the uncertainty in the markets and given the very legitimate anxiety that the American people are feeling that they know that their new president has a plan and is going to act swiftly and boldly.
Okay. Peter? Where's Peter?
I didn't recognize you, because you don't have the floppy hat that you had during the campaign.
Peter: I actually do.
Obama: There it is – [laughter] – man, that's what I'm talking about.
Peter: Thank you, Mr. President-elect. Given the election results, what sort of mandate do you have from the voters, do you believe? And does the large Democratic majority in Congress present an opportunity to pass your agenda, or is there a danger, in this environment, of overreach?
Obama: Well, first of all, we had, I think, a decisive win because of the extraordinary desire for change on the part of the American people. And so I don't think that there's any question that we have a mandate to move the country in a new direction and not continue the same old practices that have gotten us into the fix that we're in.
But I won 53% of the vote. That means 46 or 47% of the country voted for John McCain. And it's important, as I said on election night, that we enter into the new administration with a sense of humility and a recognition that wisdom is not the monopoly of any one party. In order for us to be effective, given the scope and the scale of the challenges that we face, Republicans and Democrats are going to have to work together.
And I think what the American people want more than anything is just common-sense, smart government. They don't want ideology. They don't want bickering. They don't want sniping. They want action and they want effectiveness. And that's what Peter and Rob are going to help us provide.
When it comes to our budget, I think people don't want to continue a budget – an argument about big government or small government; they want smart government and effective government. And so what we're going to do is to work as closely as we can with the Republican Party. My chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, has already met with both caucuses. We want their input. We want their ideas.
One of the things I'm very pleased about is I think that we're already seeing bipartisan accolades for the budget team that I'm putting together, because they recognize these are serious guys who are going to be honest about the budget challenges that we face. That's the kind of approach that I want. That's what I think the American people are looking for.
All right. Where's Andy Shaw?. We're going local here. Andy, you back there somewhere? There you are. All right.
Andy Shaw: Let me ask you a question on behalf of local political reporters all over the country. As you know, mayors and county board presidents and governors are facing budgets that are hemorrhaging from this economic downturn, hundreds of millions of dollars, and they're faced with layoffs and tax increases they don't want to impose. And they're kind of wondering, to paraphrase the late, great Mike Royko: Where's ours?
What in your plan speaks to the needs of governmental bodies? They're not Main Street, they're not Wall Street, they're not the U.S. Capitol; but they're Randolph and LaSalle, which is City Hall, and they're 2nd and Capitol, where you worked for eight years in Springfield. Hundreds of your friends are wondering what you're going to do, because they're in desperate straits from the standpoint of their budgets.
Obama: Well, look, this is an important point. And it's one that I addressed during the campaign and is implicit in the economic recovery plan that I talked about yesterday and that I talked about on Saturday in my weekly address. We are going to have to make sure that we are investing in roads, bridges, other infrastructure investments that lay the groundwork for long-term economic growth. A lot of that goes through our states and our local governments.
And one of the things that we're going to also want to make sure of is that as part of our economic plan, that we are fast-tracking some of these projects. And so the best way for us to do that may be in some cases to see what's – what projects are already being undertaken by state and local governments, and making sure that they have the funds to continue those projects.
So we're going to be working very closely with governors. We're going to be working very closely with mayors of towns, small and large, across the country. This economic recovery plan will require their input, their participation. And you know, part of our job is to make sure that we are listening to what's happening on the ground, where the rubber hits the road, and not simply designing something out of Washington.
Now, this raises one other important point, though. Part of the charge of Peter and Rob and the rest of our budget team is to make sure that we are proceeding on projects and investments based on national priorities and not based on politics. You mentioned sort of my friends. I want to be clear; friendship doesn't into this. That's part of the old way of doing business.
The new way of doing business is, let's figure out what projects, what investments are going to give the American economy the most bang for the buck; how can we protect taxpayer dollars, so that this money is not wasted; restore a sense of confidence among taxpayers that when we spend our money, it's on things that are actually going to improve their quality of life, create the jobs that are so desperately needed, help to spur on economic growth and business creation in the private sector. That's all part of the new way of doing business.
Shaw: If I may follow up --
Obama: No follow-up, Andy, because we've got a bunch.
Staffer: Last question.
Obama: All right. We've got – I'm going to call on Steve Toma. Where's Steve?
And the reason I'm going to call on Steve: I understand that as a lifelong White Sox fan, you were placed in the Cubs section yesterday, and I want to apologize for that. It – I – this is also part of the new way of doing business. When we make mistakes we admit them. So.
Steve Toma: Well, thank you, sir. That's the change we need –
Obama: That's the –
Toma: – on behalf of White Sox fans.
Toma: Sir, as you inherit and add to what could be a staggering one-year deficit, maybe approaching two-trillion dollars, will you draw a line between temporary fixes or permanent programs, such as tax rebates versus tax cuts? And if not, how will you guard against this red ink becoming permanent?
Obama: It's a great question, and the answer – the short answer is yes. We've got to distinguish between an immediate and temporary infusion that's going to be required to kick-start our economy and some of the structural spending that's been taking place in Washington that has created this huge mountain of debt.
And part of the charge to my economic team is to find areas where we can get a twofer, where we're getting both a short-term stimulus and we're also laying the groundwork for long-term economic growth. For example, during my campaign I talked about the need to provide a tax cut to 95% of workers. Now, for us to get that tax cut in place, that is going to put money into the pockets of the middle class and will help them in spending for their basic needs. That can help the economy. The sooner we do that the better.
That will also, though, restore some balance to our tax code over the long term. So that's an example of where the immediate needs of the economy and the long-term concerns that we have are not necessarily incompatible. Health care is another example. If we do a smart job of investing in health-care modernization -- let's just say, as an example, helping local hospitals and providers set up electronic billing and electronic medical records that experts across the spectrum consider to be an important step towards a more efficient health care system.
Now, somebody's got to help set those up. We've got to buy computers, systems and so forth. That's an immediate boost to the economy, in some cases, working with state and local governments. But it's also laying the groundwork for reducing our health-care costs over the long term. Now, the last point I'll make on this: We're still going to have to make some tough choices. There are just going to be some programs that simply don't work and we've got to eliminate them.
And so I don't think that there's any way of denying the fact that our -- my first priority and my first job is to get us on the path of economic recovery, to create 2.5 million jobs, to provide relief to middle-class families. But as soon as the recovery is well under way, then we've got to set up a long-term plan to reduce the structural deficit and make sure that we're not leaving a mountain of debt for the next generation.
And that's the – that's the job of Peter and Rob and the rest of the economic team that I introduced yesterday. All right?
Toma: Thank you.
Obama: Okay. Thank you guys.
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