Barack Obama's president-elect press conference - 11 December 2008
Before we get into the subject of today’s press conference, there are a couple of issues I’d like to address. Today we received more unsettling news about our economy. Jobless claims are now the highest they’ve been in 26 years, with more than 570,000 people filing for unemployment benefits for the -- for the very first time. And this news comes at a moment when our auto industry is struggling, threatening the jobs, health care, and pensions of not just thousands of American autoworkers, but dealers, suppliers, and others all across America.
Now, I understand people’s anger and frustration at the situation our auto companies find themselves in today. I raised concerns about the health of our auto industry a year-and-a-half ago when I spoke to industry leaders in Detroit. I urged them to act quickly to adopt new technologies and a new business approach that would help them stay competitive in these changing times. And while they’ve failed to move quickly enough towards these goals, at this moment of great challenge for our economy, we cannot simply stand by and watch this industry collapse. Doing so would lead to a devastating ripple effect throughout our economy. As I have said repeatedly, I believe our government should provide short-term assistance to the auto industry to avoid a collapse, while holding the companies accountable and protecting taxpayer interests. The legislation in Congress right now is an important step in that direction, and I’m hopeful that a final agreement can be reached this week.
Now, I’m also aware of your interest in the matter of the Illinois Senate appointment. Let me say that I was as appalled and disappointed as anybody by the revelations earlier this week. I have never spoken to the governor on this subject. I’m confident that no representatives of mine would have any part of any deals related to this seat. I think the materials released by the U.S. attorney reflect that fact. I’ve asked my team to gather the facts of any contacts with the governor’s office about this vacancy so that we can share them with you over the next few days.
Finally, on this matter, let me say that this Senate seat does not belong to any politician to trade. It belongs to the people of Illinois, and they deserve the best possible representation. They also deserve to know that any vacancy will be filled in an appropriate way so that whoever is sent to Washington is going to be fighting for the people of Illinois. I hope and expect that the leaders of the legislature will take these steps to ensure that this is so. I’d now like to turn to the topic of today’s press conference. Over the past few weeks, Vice President Biden and I have announced key members of our economic team who are working as we speak to craft a recovery program that will save and create millions of jobs and grow our struggling economy.
Today I’m pleased to announce two leading members of my health care team whose work will be critical to those efforts. Senator Tom Daschle and Dr. Jeanne Lambrew. I’ve asked Tom to serve not just as my secretary of health and human services but also as my director of White House -- of my White House office of health reform. As such, he will be responsible not just for implementing our health care plan, he will also be the lead architect of that plan.
Jeanne will serve as deputy director of this office working closing with Tom on these efforts. It’s hard to overstate the urgency of this work. Over the past eight years, premiums have nearly doubled and more families are facing more medical debt than ever before. Forty-five million fellow citizens have no health insurance at all. And day after day, we witness the disgrace of parents unable to take a sick child to the doctor, seniors unable to afford their medicines, people who wind up in emergency rooms because they have nowhere else to turn.
Year after year, our leaders offer up detailed health care plans with great fanfare and promise only to see them fail, derailed by Washington politics and influence peddling. This simply cannot continue. The runaway cost of health care is punishing families and businesses across our country. We’re on an unsustainable course and it has to change. The time has come this year in this new administration to modernize our health care system for the 21st century, to reduce costs for families and businesses, and to finally provide affordable, accessible health care for every single American.
Now, some may ask how at this moment of economic challenge we can afford to invest in reforming our health care system. And I ask a different question. I ask how can we afford not to. Right now, small businesses across America are laying off or shutting their doors for good because of rising health care costs. Some of the largest corporations in America, including major American car makers are struggling to compete with foreign companies unburdened by these costs. Instead of investing in research and development, instead of expanding and creating new jobs, our companies are pouring more and more money into a health care system that is failing too many families.
So let’s be clear. If we want to overcome our economic challenges, we must also finally address your health care challenge. I can think of no one better suited to lead this effort than the man standing beside me today. Tom Daschle is one of America’s foremost health care experts. He and Jeanne have written a groundbreaking book on the subject filled with fresh ideas and creative solutions. And Tom’s thinking on this is informed not just by statistics he’s studied or policy papers he’s read but by his years representing the people of South Dakota witnesses firsthand there struggles as hospitals closed, doctors were few and far between, and care was often out of reach.
But Tom brings more than just great expertise to this task. He brings the respect that he earned during his years of leadership in Congress. He knows how to reach across the aisle and bridge bipartisan divides. And he has the trust of folks from every angle of this issue -- doctors, nurses, and patients, unions and businesses, hospitals and advocacy groups, all of who will have a seat at the table as we craft our plan. And once we pass this legislation, I know I can rely on Tom to implement it effectively. A gifted manager, Tom is the original no- drama guy known for speaking softly but leading bolding, always treating his staff with respect while demanding excellence and empowering them to deliver. And I know Tom will bring that same decency, graciousness, and pragmatism to this new role.
Tom could not have a better partner in this work than Jeanne Lambrew. Jeanne bring a depth and range of experience on health care that few can match. She’s a leading thinker on this issue, nationally recognized for her research on Medicare, Medicaid, long-term care, and the uninsured. She’s a policy and budget expert having served at a senior level at both the Office of Management and Budget and the National Economic Council. She held lead the effort in the White House to create the Children’s Health Insurance Program and she helped craft the president’s Medicare reform plan and long-term care initiative.
And like Tom, Jeanne has a personality perfectly suited to reaching out and building consensus. She listens. She treats people well. She, like Tom, believes, as Tom put it in his farewell address to the Senate, that the politics of common ground will not be found on the far right or the far left. That’s not where most Americans live. We will only find it in the firm middle ground of common sense and shared values. I could not agree more. And I look forward to working with Tom and Jeanne in the months and years ahead.
With that, let me ask Tom to step forward and say a few words.
TOM DASCHLE: Thank you, very much, Mr. President-elect. It is a great honor to be nominated to work on an issue that is so close to my heart, leading an organization that touches so many lives at a time that there is so much at stake. There is no question that fixing health care is and has been for many years our largest domestic policy challenge. We have the most expensive health care system in the world, but are not the healthiest nation in the world. Our growing costs are unsustainable, and the plight of the uninsured is unconscionable.
Addressing our health care challenges will not only mean healthier and longer lives for millions; it will also make American companies more competitive, address the cause of half of all of our personal bankruptcies and foreclosures, and help pull our economy out of its current tailspin. That is why it is so exciting for me to take this dual role that you have outlined today, not just implementing reform, but helping to generate it.
Whether it’s administering Medicare and Medicaid, keeping our food and pharmaceuticals safe, researching the cures of tomorrow, or investing in prevention and wellness, a well-functioning Department of Health and Human Services can play a strong role in tackling the many health care challenges our country faces. And as director of the White House Office of Health Reform, I’m eager to work closely with the people from across the country to find a path forward that makes health care in this country as affordable and available as it is innovative.
As you did so effectively in your campaign, Mr. President-elect, we’re also going to bring the American people into this conversation and make health care reform an open and inclusive process that goes from the grassroots up. Over the next few weeks, we will be coordinating thousands of health care discussions in homes all across the country through our Web site, Change.gov, where ordinary Americans can share their ideas about what’s broken and how to fix it. I’ll be attending some of these discussions, seeing the ideas generated by others, and looking forward to reporting back to you on what we find.
One of the first conversations I had with then-Senate candidate Obama was about the need for meaningful national health care reform. Today I’m grateful to President-elect Obama for giving me the chance to make that a reality. I’m honored by your trust, and I look forward to the opportunity to serve our nation once again.
OBAMA: Thanks. Okay, with that, let me open it up to some questions. Let me start with Jackie, Jackie Calmes.
CALMES: Senator -- President-elect –
OBAMA: It’s okay.
CALMES: – given the -- in your statement, when you addressed the controversy over Governor Blagojevich, you did not repeat what your spokesman said yesterday about having him -- that he should resign. Why did you not? And could you tell us what contact, if any, you know that your staff or any emissaries from you have had with prosecutors or the FBI?
OBAMA: Well, let me repeat a couple of things.
Number one, I think, like most of the people of Illinois, I was appalled and disappointed by what we heard in those transcripts. And, you know, here in Illinois -- as is true, I think, across the country -- there is a tradition of public service, where people are getting in it for the right reasons and to serve, but there’s also a tradition where people view politics as a business.
And part of the reason that I got into politics, ran for the State Senate, ran for the United States Senate, and ultimately ran for the presidency is because we have to reclaim a tradition of public service that is about people and their lives, and their hopes, and their dreams. And it isn’t about what’s in it for me. And I think the public trust has been violated.
So let me be absolutely clear: I do not think that the governor at this point can effectively serve the people of Illinois. I -- the legislature is going down to Springfield to make a determination as to how to resolve this issue. I think they’re going to come to the same conclusion. I hope that the governor himself comes to the conclusion that he can no longer effectively serve and that he does resign.
In terms of our involvement, I’ll repeat what I said earlier, which is I had no contact with the governor’s office. I did not speak to the governor about these issues. That I know for certain. What I want to do is to gather all the facts about any staff contacts that I might -- may have -- that may have taken place between the transition office and the governor’s office. And we’ll have those in the next few days, and we’ll present them. But what I’m absolutely certain about is that our office had no involvement in any deal-making around my Senate seat. That I’m absolutely certain of.
And the -- that is -- that would be a violation of everything that this campaign has been about. And that’s not how we do business. So, you know, I think that, like the rest of the people of Illinois, what I want to see is a quick resolution of this issue. I want to make sure that the next senator from the state of Illinois is carrying a forward tradition of service, that the next senator from Illinois is not tainted by what has taken place so far.
I want to make sure that the next senator of Illinois is focused on health care, jobs, and all the struggles that the families of this state are going through.
Phil Elliott, A.P.?
ELLIOTT: Thank you, Mr. President-elect. Thank you. Have you or anyone in your transition or campaign been interviewed as it relates to the criminal complaint? And who is the transition adviser referenced in the complaint?
OBAMA: I have not been contacted by any federal officials. And we have not been interviewed by them. As is reflected in the U.S. attorney’s report, we were not, I think, perceived by the governor’s office as amenable to any deal-making. And, you know, I won’t quote back some of the things that were said about me. So -- this is a family program, I know. So, you know -- so, beyond that, I’m not really certain where the investigation is going forward. I’ll leave Mr. Fitzgerald to address those issues. Okay, Mike Flannery, CBS.
FLANNERY: Mr. President-elect, can you shed any light on how it was that the governor got the impression that neither you nor Ms. Jarrett nor any of the people from your office were willing to play ball and why he said those unrepeatable things about you and your -- and your staff? And a two-partner. We have the former -- the immediate former governor still moldering in the federal prison here in Terra Haute. What’s wrong with politics in Illinois?
OBAMA: Well, first of all, I can’t presume to know what was in the mind of the governor during this process, so I won’t even speculate on that. All I can do is read what was in the transcripts, like the rest of you have read it, and shake my head. Now, with respect to Illinois, look, as I said, I think in Illinois, as is true in American politics generally, there are two views of politics. There’s a view of politics that says you go in this for sacrifice and public service, and then there’s a view of politics that says that this is a business, and you’re wheeling and dealing, and what’s in it for me?
And there are -- one thing I want to make sure everybody is mindful of -- there are extraordinary traditions of public service coming out of Illinois, even after Abraham Lincoln. You know, you’ve got people like Paul Simon, and Paul Douglas, our current senator, Dick Durbin, our senior senator, and many others on both sides of the aisle who have upheld the highest standards of ethics and have made enormous sacrifices to make sure that they’re getting something done for the people of Illinois.
But what you also have, I think, are habits and a culture that thinks of politics as a -- as a means of self-aggrandizement. That’s exactly what has to change. I mean, this is -- if, in fact, the various allegations end up proving to be true -- and I don’t want to, obviously, prejudge all these issues -- this is sort of the far end of the spectrum of that business mentality of politics. But there are more subtle examples of it, right, that are within the lines of legality but still don’t fulfill the spirit of service.
You know, we know in Washington that lobbyists that disproportionate influence. We know that in state houses and city councils all across America there are times where people are not thinking about what’s best for the public good but rather making narrow political calculations. And our whole campaign was about changing that view of politics and restoring a sense that when people of good will come together and are serious about confronting the challenges that we face, that not only can that be good policy but, you know what, it can be good politics as well.
It turns out that the American people are hungry for that. And you can get elected by playing it straight. You can get elected by doing the right thing. That’s what I hope we have modeled in this campaign. And that’s what I intend to model in my administration.
Last question. Let’s see. Debbie Charles of Reuter?
CHARLES: I want to ask you how are you actually planning to fund your health care program. I know that it has been estimated that it could cost (inaudible) billion dollars. And you had planned, originally, to fund it through getting rid of the tax cuts for the wealthy, but that, apparently, in the current economic situation maybe that’s not so reasonable. Are you still planning to do that? Or how will you fund it?
OBAMA: Well, let me start by talking about the issue of costs because central to my health care plan during the campaign, the starting point was how to we reduce costs. How do we gain savings that we can then put into prevention and health IT and making sure that people who don’t current have coverage get coverage and families who are seeing their premiums double get relief. And so what we wanted to make sure of was that any plan that we have starts with the premise that rising costs are unsustainable. We can’t simply insure everybody under the current program without bankrupting the government or bankrupting businesses or states.
So we’re going to spend a lot of time on how do you streamline and rationalize the system. And I think you can fairly expect that we’re going to have some very aggressive initiatives around things like health IT, around things like prevention that reduce costs. We’re also going to examine programs that I’m not sure are giving us a good bang for the buck. The Medicare Advantage program is one that I’ve already cited where we’re spending billions of dollars subsidizing insurance companies for a program that doesn’t appreciably improve the health of seniors under Medicare.
So our starting point is savings. Now, we are probably going to have to, then, find additional dollars to pay for some investments in the short term, although, my charge to my team is figuring out how do we make sure that it pays for itself over, say, a ten-year period so that we’re actually saving money over the long term. And I have not made yet a determination in terms of how we’re going deal with the rollback of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. That’s part of the charge that I’ve given to my economic advisers working in concert with our health care team.
Today, we’re going to be sitting down and starting to chart out how does this process move forward. And my goal is to make sure that we have everybody involved, doctors, nurses, patient advocates, that we have businesses, labor, everybody sitting around the table, Republicans and Democrats, this is going to be an open and transparent process. You remember I made this promise during the course of the campaign.
We’re still going to have a bunch of this stuff on CSPAN. We are -- Tom has already initiated a process where we’re going to have groups around the country who are convening to talk about what they think needs to be placed in a health care plan. My hope is to convene all the interested parties in Washington sometime early in my administration and make sure that we are moving forward, open-minded to all kinds of good ideas, but insistent that the time is now to solve this problem.
I’ve met too many families during the course of the campaign before the economic downturn that are desperate. Close to 50 percent of family bankruptcies are caused because of a health care crisis. We know the strains that are being placed on businesses as a consequence of rising health care costs. So this has to be intimately woven into our overall health care -- our overall economic recovery plan. It’s not something that we can sort of put off because we’re in an emergency. This is part of the emergency. And what we want to do is make sure that our strategy reflects that truth.
Okay, thank you, guys. Appreciate it.