Barack Obama's president-elect press conference - 7 December 2008

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President-elect press conference (12/07/08)
Barack Obama and Eric Shinseki

Good afternoon.

Earlier this week, I announced key members of my national security team. They have served in uniform and as diplomats; they have worked as legislators, law enforcement officials, and executives. They share my sense of purpose about American leadership in the world, my pragmatism about the use of power, and my vision for how we can protect our people, defeat our enemies, and meet the challenges of the 21st Century.

As we seek a new national security strategy that uses all elements of American power, we must also remember those who run the greatest risks and make the greatest sacrifices to implement that strategy – the men and women who wear the uniform of the United States of America. Even as I speak, they are serving brilliantly and bravely in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the world. And we must show them and their families the same devotion that they have shown this country.

We don't have to do our troops and our veterans a favor, we have a sacred trust to repay one. That starts with recognizing that for many of today's troops and their families, the war doesn’t end when they come home. Far too many are suffering from the signature injuries of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury. And far too few are receiving the screening and treatment they need. The servicemen and women who embody what's best about America should get the best care we have to offer, and that is what we will provide when I am President.

And in this struggling economy, we also have to do more to ensure that when our troops come home and leave the service, they can find jobs that pay well, provide good benefits, and help them support their families.

But we don’t just need to better serve veterans of today’s wars. We also need to build a 21st Century VA that will better serve all who have answered our nation’s call. That means cutting red tape and easing transition into civilian life. And it means eliminating shortfalls, fully funding VA health care, and providing the benefits our veterans have earned.

That is the kind of VA that will serve our veterans as well as they have served us. And there is no one more distinguished, more determined, or more qualified to build this VA than the leader I am announcing as our next Secretary of Veterans Affairs -- General Eric Shinseki. No one will ever doubt that this former Army Chief of Staff has the courage to stand up for our troops and our veterans. No one will ever question whether he will fight hard enough to make sure they have the support they need.

A graduate of West Point, General Shinseki served two combat tours in Viet Nam, where he lost part of his foot, and was awarded two Purple Hearts and three Bronze Stars. Throughout his nearly four decades in the U.S. Army, he won the respect and admiration of our men and women in uniform because they have always been his highest priority. He has always stood on principle – because he has always stood with our troops. And he will bring that same sense of duty and commitment to ensuring that we treat our veterans with the care and dignity they deserve.

A decorated soldier who has served at every level in the Army, General Shinseki understands the changing needs of our troops and their families. And he will be a VA Secretary who finally modernizes our VA to meet the challenges of our time.

Nearly seventy years ago today, "a date which will live in infamy," our harbor was bombed in Hawai`i, and our troops went off to war. And after that war was over, after we reclaimed a continent from a madman and beat back danger in the Pacific, those troops came home to a grateful nation – a nation that welcomed them with a GI Bill and a chance to live out in peace the dreams they had fought for, and so many died for, on the battlefield. We owe it to all our veterans to honor them as we honored our Greatest Generation – not just with words, but with deeds.

And with the national security team I announced this week and the extraordinary and courageous Secretary of Veterans Affairs I am announcing today, I am confident that we will never hesitate to defend our security, that we will send our troops into battle only when we must, and that, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, we will truly care for all "who shall have borne the battle."

Now, I’d like to turn it over to our next VA Secretary, General Eric Shinseki.

ERIC SHINSEKI: Well, Mr. President-elect, thank you for the honor of being nominated to serve our nation and your cabinet. I can think of no higher responsibility than ensuring that men and women who have served our nation in uniform are treated with the care and respect that they have earned. As you’ve said, these brave Americans are part of an unbroken line of heroes that stretches back to the American Revolution.

And yet, even as we stand here today, there are veterans who have worried about keeping their health care or even their homes, paying their bills or finding a good job when they leave the service. Veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular are confronting serious severe wounds — some seen, some unseen — making it difficult for them to get on with their lives in this struggling economy. They deserve a smooth, error-free, no-fail, benefits-assured transition into our ranks as veterans. And that is our responsibility, not theirs.

A word to my fellow veterans: If confirmed, I will work each and every day to ensure that we are serving you as well as you have served us. We will pursue a 21st-century V.A. that serves your needs. We will open doors, new doors of opportunity so you can find a good job, support your families when you return to civilian life. And if we will always — we will always honor the sacrifices of those who have worn the uniform and their loved ones. So, Mr. President-elect, thank you for entrusting me with this great responsibility.

And I thank all of our veterans who have served in the Armed Forces of our nation.

OBAMA: Okay, let me take a few questions. We'll start with Juliana. Where is - there you are. You were sitting there last time.

JULIANA: I know, changing it up a little bit.

OBAMA: Were you shifting to White Sox, from Cubs?

JULIANA: [laughs] – Thank you, Mr. President-elect. Was it the right decision for Democrats to abandon insistence on using only TARP funds for the auto bailout? And also, today Senator Chris Dodd said that GM's Rick Wagoner should step down as part of a restructuring plan. Do you agree with that?

OBAMA: Well, let me broaden the question a little bit. I have said repeatedly that to allow the auto industry in the United States to collapse, precisely at a time when we're already seeing record joblessness, is unacceptable. What I've also said is that it makes no sense for us to shovel more money into the problem if you have not seen an auto industry that is committed to restructuring - restructuring that, frankly, should have been done ten years ago, twenty years ago, thirty years ago.

And so, Congress did the right thing when it rejected a plea for funds without a plan two weeks ago. The automakers have come forward and put a more serious plan on the table, but more needs to be done. And I think that Congress is doing the exact right thing by asking for a conditions-based assistance package that holds the auto industry's feet to the fire - gives them some short-term assistance, but also insists that that assistance leads to some very difficult choices involving all the stakeholders in the auto industry, including management, Labor, shareholders, creditors, and so on.

Where that money comes from I think is an issue that Congress is going to be making a determination about over the next couple of days. But, keep in mind that I'm going to be coming in insisting that part of the restructuring plan for any auto industry, going forward, includes the kind of things that had been part of the non-TARP 136 money previously, which is making sure that they're retooling for energy efficiency.

So, in that sense, the same conditions that had been set earlier, those are going to be there, moving forward. We have to have an auto industry that understands they can't keep on doing things the same way.

And, with respect to management, what I would say is that if this management team that's currently in place doesn't understand the urgency of the situation, and is not willing to make the tough choices, and adapt to these new circumstances, then they should go. If, on the other hand, they are willing, able and show themselves committed to making those important changes, then, you know, that raises a different situation. Okay.

Jonathan Martin, Politico - there you are.

MARTIN: Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. You said on Meet the Press this morning that the economy is getting worse before it's getting better, sir. In light of the severity of the crisis, do you think the Bush administration is doing enough right now to address the economy? And what more could they be doing, sir?

OBAMA: Well, I do think that we have not seen all of the scope of, you know, some of the hardship that's being experienced by families. You know, if you had half a million jobs in November that have been lost, what that means is that families - who right now may still be absorbing the initial shock, they're going to have to be making a bunch of tough decisions going forward. Some of them may have lost health care. Some of them were already having a tough time before they lost their job.

And so, you know, the main thing I wanted to communicate was the fact that these aren't just abstract numbers - that they ripple throughout the economy and people are really suffering, which is why we've got to act swiftly and boldly. I think the administration understands the severity of the problem. I think they want to do the right thing.

I will repeat what I said on Meet the Press today, which is, we have not seen the kind of aggressive steps in the housing market to stem foreclosures that I would like to see. And my team is preparing plans to address that foreclosure situation. We have - my team has had some conversations with the administration about that. If it is not done during the transition, it will be done by me.

But, let me make one last point. I am absolutely confident that if we take the right steps over the coming months, that not only can we get the economy back on track, but we can emerge leaner, meaner, and ultimately more competitive and more prosperous. And that's why the economic stimulus package that I've proposed is one that is designed not just to deal with the short term, but also to deal with the long term.

There's been some talk about, 'well, how big is this package going to be;' and, 'how are we going to pay for it?' Let me repeat what I've said earlier, there is a bipartisan consensus among economists - you can talk to Conservative as well as Liberal economists, that right now our biggest challenge is putting people back to work and stabilizing the economy. And so, although we are already in a situation of - by some estimates, it's a potential $1 trillion deficit, the thing that we have to do right now is to have a bold economic recovery plan.

When I was meeting with the governors, there was a - not a absolute consensus, but a strong bipartisan majority that said we've got to get people working on some key projects that have been sitting there for a long time. And that doesn't just include traditional infrastructure, like roads and bridges, it includes making down- payments on making our economy more energy efficient. School construction, laying broad-band lines, instituting medical information technologies that can drive down costs - all of these things are designed to have long-term payoffs for taxpayers, not just for individual businesses.

And having said that, it's also going to be important, though, that the way we design this stimulus package - this economic recovery plan, is one that changes how we do business. We are not going to simply write a bunch of checks and let them be spent without some very clear criteria as to how this money is going to benefit the overall economy and put people back to work. We're not going to be making decisions on projects simply based on politics and lobbying. We're going to make it based on what objective criteria is available to us - to see what's going to make the biggest difference in the economy and what will have some long-term benefits.

And so, if you think about the fact that you've got a bipartisan consensus right now, that we need to act forcefully, that the economic recovery plan has to have a sufficient scope; number two, that we have to make sure that it is done in a way that doesn't just duplicate old- style, pork-barrel politics; and, number three, that it's designed to set us on a path for long-term economic growth, I'm convinced that we can get that package in place quickly, provide families some immediate relief, and we will emerge stronger than we are right now. Okay.

Where's Abdon, Sun-Times.

ABDON: Thank you, Mr. President-elect.

Two questions: Number one, are you aware of the situation that's happening in Chicago right now at the Republic Window and Door factory that was abruptly closed Friday after they lost their line of credit from Bank of America - even though the government bailed out Bank of America; and Reverend Jackson's there today, Representative Gutierrez was there yesterday taking the side of the workers who have occupied the factory? Is there anything that can be done to put pressure on the bailed-out banks to keep the money flowing there?

And, number two, there have been a number of stories quoting gun dealers around the country saying that gun sales are up since you were elected, because some people fear that it'll be harder to get guns, even though you campaigned saying you weren't going to take people's guns away. What do you think of that?

OBAMA: Well, on the gun issue, I believe in commonsense gun safety laws, and I believe in the Second Amendment. And so, lawful gun owners have nothing to fear. I've said that throughout the campaign. I haven't indicated anything different during the transition. And I think that people can take me at my word.

When it comes to the situation here in Chicago with the workers who are asking for the benefits and payments that they have earned, I think they're absolutely right. And understand that what's happening to them is reflective of what's happening across this economy. When you have a financial system that is shaky, credit contracts; businesses large and small start cutting back on their plants, and equipment and their workforces. And so that's why it's so important for us to maintain a strong financial system.

But, it's also important for us to make sure that the plans and programs that we design aren't just targeted at maintaining the solvency of banks, that they're designed also to get money out the door and to help people on Main Street. So, number one, I think that these workers, if they have earned these benefits and their pay, then these companies need to follow through on those commitments. And, number two, I think it is important for us to make sure that, moving forward, any economic plan that we put in place helps businesses to meet payroll so that we're not seeing these kinds of circumstances again.

And one of the things I've asked my economic team to review is: Have we done everything that we can to make sure that credit is flowing to businesses, and to families, and to students who are trying to get loans, and homeowners who have been making their payments on their homes but are still finding their properties' values so depressed that it becomes very difficult for them to make their mortgage payments? That's where the rubber hits the road and that's going to be the central focus of my administration. Okay.

All right, guys, thank you.

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