Press Conference with President-Elect Barack Obama

Press Conference

By:  Barack Obama II
Date: Jan. 9, 2009
Location: Washington, DC


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PRESIDENT-ELECT OBAMA: Please have a seat, everybody. Good morning.

Before I discuss today's announcement, I'd like to say a few words about the latest jobs numbers that we received this morning.

Yesterday, I spoke about the need to pass the America Recovery and Reinvestment Plan so that we can jump-start job creation, invest in our future, and lay a foundation for long-term economic growth. This morning, we received a stark reminder about how urgently action is needed: 524,000 jobs were lost in December across nearly all major American industries. That means that our economy lost jobs in all 12 months of 2008, and that nearly 2.6 million jobs lost last year amount to the single worst year of job loss since World War II. The unemployment rate is now well over 7 percent. In addition, we have 3.4 million people who want full-time work but are only able to get part-time work.

Clearly, the situation is dire. It is deteriorating, and it demands urgent and immediate action. My staff and I have been engaged in a constructive dialogue with members of Congress over the last few days and weeks about my American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan, which will save or create 3 million jobs and make long-term investments in critical areas like energy, health care and education. We've made good progress in these consultations. I look forward to working closely with Congress to shape legislation that will work for the American people.

But let me be clear, today's job report only underscores the need for us to move with a sense of urgency and common purpose. Behind each and every one of those millions of jobs lost, there are workers and families who are counting on us as they struggle to pay the bills or pay in their homes. There are American dreams that are being deferred and that are being denied because of the current economic climate. There is a devastating economic crisis that will become more and more difficult to contain with time.

For the sake of our economy and our people, this is the moment to act, and to act without delay.

Now I'd like to say a few words about today's appointments. Over the past few weeks, Vice President-elect Biden and I have been working with our national security appointees so that we're ready to hit the ground running on January 20th. Today, I'm pleased to complete our team by announcing my choices to lead the intelligence community and the CIA.

It's hard to overstate the importance of good intelligence in the 21st century. When much of our intelligence community was founded, it was focused on one overarching threat, the Soviet Union. Today, we face a world of unconventional challenges, from the spread of stateless terrorist networks and weapons of mass destruction to the grave dangers posed by failed states and rogue regimes.

As we learned on 9/11, we are not protected by the distance of an ocean or the ability to deter an enemy. There is no margin for error. To keep our people safe, we must seamlessly collect, analyze, share and act on information with a sense of urgency. This requires the selfless services of countless patriots and the skillful management of our sixteen intelligence agencies. Good intelligence is not a luxury, it is a necessity.

The men and women of the intelligence community have been on the front lines in this world of new and evolving dangers. They have served in the shadows, saved American lives, advanced our interests, and earned the respect of a grateful nation. There have been sound reforms and many successes built over the last several years.

But here in Washington, we've also learned some tough lessons. We've learned that to make pragmatic policy choices, we must insist on assessments grounded solely in the facts, and not seek information to suit any ideological agenda. To support those who carry out our intelligence mission, we must give them the resources they need and the clear guidance they deserve. And we know that to be truly secure, we must adhere to our values as vigilantly as we protect our safety, with no exceptions.

I am confident that Dennis Blair and Leon Panetta are the right leaders to advance the work of our intelligence community.

They are public servants with unquestioned integrity, broad experience, strong management skills and the core pragmatism we need in dangerous times.

Together they will form a team that is uniquely qualified to continue the good work that is being done while making the changes we need to stay ahead of nimble threats and sustain the trust of the American people.

Admiral Dennis Blair has seen the diverse uses of intelligence from many different perspectives. Over several decades in uniform, he learned firsthand the necessity of good intelligence for our men and women in uniform.

As commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, he developed a deep understanding of the critical importance of Asia and carried out a major offensive against violent extremists. And as a former NSC staffer and the first associate director of Central Intelligence for Military Support, he is uniquely qualified to bridge -- to build bridges of cooperation among our national security institutions.

As DNI, Dennis will be the leader and manager of our intelligence community. He will have my full support as he develops our capabilities, strengthens information gathering and sharing, enhances cooperation with foreign governments and provides policymakers with the information we need, even if it's not always the information that we want.

As someone who has handled intelligence, as a sailor at sea and a strategic thinker in Washington, he will have the expertise and authority to ensure that our 16 intelligence agencies act with unity of effort and of purpose.

Admiral Blair's experience will be exceptionally complemented by Leon Panetta, my choice to be director of the CIA. Leon is one of the finest public servants of our time. And he's committed himself to his country since he put on the uniform of the United States Army.

As a Congressman, OMB Director and White House Chief of Staff, he has unparalleled experience in making the institutions of government work better for the American people. He has handled intelligence daily at the very highest levels. And time and again he has demonstrated sound judgment, grace under fire and complete integrity.

Let me be clear. In Leon Panetta, the agency will have a director who has my complete trust and substantial clout. He will be a strong manager and a strong advocate for the CIA. He knows how to focus resources where they are needed. And he has a proven track record of building consensus and working on a bipartisan basis with Congress.

I am confident he will strengthen the CIA's capabilities to protect the American people as it continues to adapt -- to reform our intelligence community.

I will also rely on the talent and the expertise of several distinguished public service with substantial intelligence experience. The current DNI, Mike McConnell, will continue to offer his counsel through my Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.

The National Counterterrorism Center -- the hub of our efforts to prevent attacks and root out terrorist networks -- will continue to benefit from the leadership of Michael Leiter. And I'm pleased to announce that John Brennan, a close advisor, CIA veteran and former leader of the National Counterterrorism Center, will be my homeland security adviser and deputy national security advisor for counterterrorism, serving with the rank of assistant to the president. John has the experience, vision and integrity to advance America's security.

The demands on the intelligence community are huge and growing. To have a successful and sustainable national security strategy, I have made clear that we will need to deploy and balance all elements of American power: our military, diplomacy, homeland security, economic might and moral suasion. Good intelligence work is necessary to support each of these endeavors.

Right now, there are men and women working around the world to bear this burden. We may never know their names, but we will always honor their sacrifice. The task for the team that I have assembled is to guide, support and integrate their efforts so that we protect our security and safeguard the values that all of us have pledged to uphold.

With that, I would like to give Admiral Blair an opportunity to say a few words. Thank you.

ADM. BLAIR: President-elect Obama, thank you for this opportunity to carry out this responsibility that you've entrusted me with. Our mission in national security is absolutely clear: timely, accurate, relevant intelligence to those who keep this nation safe and to you so that you can make informed national security policy decisions.

And it's an honor to lead the U.S. intelligence services. As you stated so well, Mr. President, the American people do not always know about these thousands of men and women who serve with patriotism, with dedication, but without public recognition. They are outstanding public servants.

And we, in that group, will perform our duties fully and capably and according to law.

We will uphold the standards that you articulated and that the American people have a right to expect.

You've made it very clear, sir, that you are best served by hearing different perspectives and by respectful debate. And the intelligence services will support you with facts, interpretations, assessments, in a straightforward manner. And we will tell you how well we know what we know, and what we don't know.

So I deeply appreciate the opportunity to lead our intelligence services. And if confirmed by the Senate, I look forward to joining the national security team.

And as President-elect Obama has said, Leon Panetta's achievements have been remarkable. His services at the top level of the executive branch and in the Congress combined leadership and wisdom. And in this business, we will count on him for both. I could not ask for a better leader of the Central Intelligence Agency, one of the key agencies within our intelligence community.

Leon, with your background and perspective, the skilled professionals on your team, the agency is in superb hands. And so I welcome your counsel and support as together we seek to serve the president.

Thank you.

MR. PANETTA: Thank you, Denny.

Thank you, Mr. President-elect, for this honor and this opportunity to once again serve our great country. Throughout my 40 years in public life, I've had the honor and the privilege of serving this nation in a number of capacities.

In recent years, my wife Sylvia and I established the Panetta Institute, whose mission is to inspire young people to lives of public service. Surely we can now do no less. Particularly at a time when our national security is threatened, I believe it is important to respond again to this call to duty, like so many other brave Americans have done.

And it's because of them that I will work tirelessly to defend this nation and to provide you, Mr. President-elect, with the most accurate and objective intelligence that you need to lead this nation at a time of great peril, but also a time of great opportunity.

The Central Intelligence Agency has a rich and proud history. As you referenced, the professionals at CIA serve bravely around, many in dangerous places and away from their families, often undercover, sometimes under fire. They are the front line of our defense at a very dangerous time. And they deserve and will have my complete confidence and support.

Strong intelligence requires a strong team. And I look forward to working with Admiral Blair, with John Brennan as well as the other many talented and dedicated men and women of our intelligence community. And I look forward to working with the other members of your administration, particularly those involved with national security. And I commit to consulting closely, with my former colleagues in the Congress, to form the kind of partnership we need if we're to win the war on terror.

The inscription on the wall at the old headquarters building, at Langley, quotes scripture. And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. If confirmed, Mr. President-elect, I will be honored to lead the men and women of the CIA to seek and speak the truth and, in so doing, to help preserve this nation's freedom. Thank you.

PRESIDENT-ELECT OBAMA: Okay. With that, let me take some questions. We'll start with Lita Baldor, AP.

Q Mr. President-Elect, do you believe that your choices for your national security team should signal, to the international community, any softening of the U.S. stance on Iran? And does it also signal either a reassessment or a crackdown on policies involving harsh interrogation techniques -- (off mike)?

PRESIDENT-ELECT OBAMA: Okay, well, let me start with the second part of the question.

I was clear throughout this campaign, and have been clear throughout this transition, that under my administration the United States does not torture; we will abide by the Geneva Conventions; that we will uphold our highest values and ideals. And that is a clear charge that I've given to Admiral Blair and to Leon Panetta. And I think it is important for us to do that not only because that's who we are; but also, ultimately it will make us safer and will help in changing hearts and minds in our struggle against extremists.

With respect to Iran, I'll have more to say about Iran after January 20th. I have said in the past, during the course of the campaign, that Iran is a genuine threat to U.S. national security, but I've also said that we should be willing to initiate diplomacy as a mechanism to achieve our national security goals. And my national security team I think is reflective of that practical, pragmatic approach to foreign policy. And when we have a policy towards Iran that has been shaped by my national security team, we will release it.

Okay. Debbie Charles, Reuters.

Q Thank you, sir. You have said that you had had constructive dialogue with the members of Congress about -- or your team had with members of Congress about the stimulus plan, or the reinvestment plan. Are you concerned that now Democrats are voicing some concerns, and especially over the tax part of the -- to your tax proposals -- are you worried that this is a harder sell than you had expected? And does this change the way you might be presenting the package? Is this all going to be in one, or are you going to have to instead maybe break it down into bits in order to get it approved?

PRESIDENT-ELECT OBAMA: Well, let's take a look at what we've achieved so far. And obviously, I'm not sworn in until January 20th.

But we've provided a framework where my incoming administration and Congress share a common set of goals. There's no disagreement that the economy is in dire straits. There's no disagreement that we need to create jobs. And so the goal that I've set of creating or saving 3 million jobs is one that members of Congress agree with.

There's no disagreement that we need action by our government, a recovery plan that will help to jump-start the economy. And so, having provided the framework, now we're going to have a consultation. And my staff is up on the Hill as we speak, talking to various members of Congress, asking them for their ideas.

You know, our expectation is, is that we will continue to hone and refine our package over the next several weeks. But the one thing that I tried to lay out yesterday to the American people, and I will continue to insist on, is we cannot delay. We cannot -- you know, there are going to be a whole host of good ideas out there, and we welcome all of them. And we're going to sift through all of them and we are going to work in a collaborative fashion with Congress.

What we can't do is drag this out, when we just saw half a million more jobs lost. You know, the American people are struggling. And behind these statistics that we see flashing on the screens are real lives, real suffering, real fears. And it is my job to make sure that Congress stays focused in the weeks to come and get this done. And I have every expectation that we will get it done.

Q Is it harder than you had expected?

PRESIDENT-ELECT OBAMA: Oh, I -- you're assuming that I expected it to be easy.

Q (Not really ?).

PRESIDENT-ELECT OBAMA: No. (Laughter.) The -- it's always hard. But I have confidence that we're going to get it done.

Chip Reid.

Q Thank you, Mr. President-elect. I'd like to follow up on that. Larry Summers, as you said, is up on the Hill now, and we're told he's getting an earful from some Democrats, who say this plan just isn't big enough. And I know you've resisted putting a number on it, but your staff has talked about a high end of about $800 billion, something like that.

They say if that's true, and if 40 percent of it is tax cuts that don't have the bang for the buck that spending has, it's not big enough.

Paul Krugman today said that it falls far short of what you're going to need to put America put back to work. How do you respond to those critics?

PRESIDENT-ELECT OBAMA: Well, look, there are some people who have said that it's not big enough; there are others who say it's too big.

Q But those are Republicans.

PRESIDENT-ELECT OBAMA: Well, the -- as I said before, Democrats or Republicans, we welcome good ideas. And so the challenge for all of us, I think, is to identify good ideas, good spending plans, that deliver on my commitment to create or save 3 million jobs.

I want this to work. This is not a(n) intellectual exercise and there's no pride of authorship. If members of Congress have good ideas, if they can identify a project for me that will create jobs in an efficient way; that does not hamper our ability to, over the long term, get control of our deficit; that is good for the economy, then I'm going to accept it.

If Paul Krugman has a good idea in terms of how to spend money efficiently and effectively to jump-start the economy, then we're going to do it. If somebody has a(n) idea for a tax cut that is better than a tax cut we've proposed, we will embrace it.

So, you know, one of the things that I think I'm trying to communicate in this process is for everybody to get past the habit that sometimes occurs in Washington of -- "Whose idea is it; what ideological corner does it come from?" Just show me. If you can show me that something's going to work, I will welcome it. If it works better than something I've proposed, I'll welcome it.

What is not an option is for us to sit and engage in posturing or, you know, the standard partisan fights when the American people are out there struggling. And I don't expect Congress is going to do that, because I think that they understand the urgency of the situation, and they're hearing from their constituents.

Q You said you're going to hone and refine the package, but are you open to --


Q You said earlier, you know, you're going to hone and refine the package. Are you open to substantially increasing the size of it, as it's being described, the spending portion on Capitol Hill?

PRESIDENT-ELECT OBAMA: You know, I think that there are going to be a lot of different opinions out there. We're going to take all of them in and, at the end of the day, we're going to have a package that Congress passes and I sign.

STAFF: Last question.

PRESIDENT-ELECT OBAMA: Okay. Hans Nichols, Bloomberg.

Q Thank you, Mr. President-elect. Throughout the campaign, you talked a lot about changing the way things work in Washington, but I want to go outside of Washington a little bit to some of those foreign embassies and plush ambassadorial residences. Will you be appointing big donors in the time-honored tradition to foreign embassies to serve as ambassadorships? Or will you draw solely from the ranks of career Foreign Service?

PRESIDENT-ELECT OBAMA: Well, we have not begun to think about all the ambassadorial appointments that are out there.

There are some that are critical, that have to be filled immediately, and those are the ones I'm focused on.

For example, the ambassador to Iraq, you know, I think is -- is very important. Ryan Crocker's done outstanding work, and he has been a remarkable public servant. I think he deserves -- he is one of the unsung heroes in terms of reducing violence in Iraq. But he has been serving there a very long time in a very difficult post.

And so, you know, but we're going to have to take a look at a whole host of those critical ambassadorial positions. My general inclination is to have civil service wherever possible serve in these posts. And we have outstanding public servants.

And I've spoken with Secretary of State-designee Hillary Clinton about the importance of -- of rejuvenating the State Department. I want to recruit young people into the State Department to feel that this is a career track that they can be on for the long term. And so, you know, my expectation is, is that high-quality civil servants are going to be rewarded.

You know, are there going to be political appointees to ambassadorships? There probably will be some. I don't -- you know, I think it would be -- it would be disingenuous for me to suggest that there are not going to be some excellent public servants, but who haven't come through -- through the ranks of the -- the civil service. But, you know, as we roll out our ambassadors, I think you'll be able to make an assessment in terms of the professionalism and high quality of the people that we appoint.

Okay? Thank you, guys.

Q Any BCS reactions? (Laughter.)

PRESIDENT-ELECT OBAMA: Congratulations to Florida. One of the -- one of my former detail leaders of -- for Secret Service, their son is a starting -- is a left tackle for Florida. And -- and so I've sent him an e-mail telling him congratulations.

I have to point out, if -- if I'm Utah, if I'm USC or if I'm Texas, I may still have some quibbles. And you've heard my -- you've heard my pitch.

Q Who's number one -- (off mike)?

PRESIDENT-ELECT OBAMA: That's why we need a playoff. (Laughter.)

All right, guys.


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