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President Bush Holds First Official White House News ConferenceAired February 22, 2001 - 2:36 p.m. ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Again, waiting for first official White House news conference by President George W. Bush. It should begin in about five minutes. And with the attention in Washington focused on the former president, Clinton, the current president and his agenda is not getting the kind of attention the White House might hope for, or is it?
We asked senior White House adviser Karl Rove that question today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KARL ROVE, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE ADVISER: People sort of compartmentalize news, and a lot of this discussion about Clinton and his difficulties is all retrospective. That's all that -- people classify that as then. They are concerned now about now and the future. So, I don't see any difficulty at all.
I don't know if I should have brought it with me -- I don't know if you saw the headlines from yesterday, the president was in -- was in Tennessee. The day before that, he was in Ohio and in St. Louis, and, you know, the front pages of those newspapers and the evening news broadcast in those towns had no mention of the other issues.
I mean, the president dominated -- as the president -- as any president does when he goes on the road.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ALLEN: Hear more from senior White House adviser Rove on CNN's "INSIDE POLITICS" today; that comes your way at 5:00 Eastern. He will talk in depth with CNN political analyst Stu Rothenberg and Charlie Cook. That's "INSIDE POLITICS," 5:00 Eastern.
LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: The Clinton pardon story has dominated headlines almost from the moment the Clintons left the White House, and with new revelations, it seems likely we'll be hearing a lot more about it. How is all this affecting the Bush administration, the new president's popularity ratings and his ability to advance his own agenda?
CNN Washington Bureau chief Frank Sesno has been listening to the talk up on Capitol Hill. Frank, what are you hearing? FRANK SESNO, CNN WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF: A lot, to put it very bluntly.
You know, it's interesting -- the Republicans are bemused by this. There is a certain sense of detachment and 'we told you so' vindication from some, who says that -- who say that the character issue and the controversies that dog Clinton merited all that investigation all those many years -- and a sense of being besieged by the Democrats who really just want to turn the page and move on. They say, you know, they are really over this.
And it is making it difficult for, really, everybody to cut through. That picture that we saw just a moment ago of Hillary Rodham Clinton stepping to those microphones, surrounded by reports -- that picture, in a way, says it all. That was not a gathering of reporters there to hear about her work on the budget committee or the next bill she's going to propose to improve the work situation or transportation in upstate New York, it was to hear more about the controversies and hear her latest explanation for what happened and why.
WATERS: And, Frank, part of that news conference, if we can call it that, with Hillary Rodham Clinton, she was asked about the Clinton presidency, and in effect, was it a failure because of all of these scandals? And she stood there and she defended tooth-and-nail the presidency and just talked mainly about her disappointment over these flaps at the end here.
So, she -- is, in fact, talking about the success of the Clinton presidency and the need to continue on with the same prosperity and the same direction in the future.
SESNO: It shows what a difficult situation, Lou, Democrats are in right now, because they're trying to defend, or they'd like to defend the legacy, the policy legacy of the Clinton administration -- those eight years of 22 million jobs, welfare rolls cut in half, teen pregnancy down, crime down -- all that that you've heard again and again and again.
But every day that one of these controversies arises, every day that someone is asked to go out and defend the situation, it becomes more difficult for the Democrats to do just that, and it cuts very much in George W. Bush's favor.
What Democrats are saying is -- it makes it look as if Bush has delivered on one of his most central and important campaign pledges, which is to restore dignity to the White House, because he wins just by virtue of the comparison.
WATERS: So, so -- so what does the Bush administration do? I mean, it can't be all rosy for them? Every administration needs media in order to project not only their message, but their agenda. And it would seem that most of media attention is off the Bush administration now.
So, who do we believe? Is this good for the Bush administration agenda, or is it bad for it? SESNO: Well, it's both really. I mean, if you talk to people at the White House, as we have, you talk to Republicans around town as we have, what they'll tell you is, sure, any time you've got the former president sucking the oxygen out of the room, it just makes it a little bit harder for anybody else to breathe. It makes it a little bit harder for anybody else to get their message across.
So, whether it's President Bush's efforts to reform the military and promote national missile defense, or to get -- communicate about his tax cut plan or anything else -- inevitably, there's only so much room on the front page, there are only so many minutes in the network newscast.
What you heard, though, a few minutes ago with Karl Rove's comments is that they do feel, to some extent -- the White House -- that they are having success when the president goes on the road in making headlines and cutting through in media in certain regions, in the localities where he's visiting. But, as far as the national press is concerned, as far as the dynamic here in Washington is concerned, folks are walking around talking an awful lot about Bill Clinton, scratching their heads.
One other point on the White House perspective, Lou, and that is one version from the inside that, in a way, not being under the microscope has an effect -- has, in effect, been helpful a little bit, because it's backed them off and they had more running room to get their sea legs.
WATERS: In about a minute here, we're going to hear from President Bush. We don't know entirely what he's going to say, but he is going to be asked some questions.
Here he is now, let's see what his first news conference is all about.
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Good afternoon. It's been about a month now since I've taken office, and I thought it appropriate to come by and have a press conference. Before I do so, though, I'd like to make a few comments.
One of my missions has been to change the tone here in the nation's capital, to encourage civil discourse. I think we're making pretty good progress. I want to thank the Democrats and the Republicans who have been coming up to the White House to hear me make my case. I appreciate their responsiveness. I just hope they vote for my agenda that I'll be submitting next week in a budget address to Congress.
I have a reasonable and balanced budget. It meets growing needs with a responsible rate of increase in spending. It funds priorities. And my administration has no higher priority than education.
Yesterday, I announced that the Department of Education will receive the largest percentage increase of any department in the federal government, a little more than an 11 percent increase. But with new money will come high expectations. We must insist on results and support programs that work. It is in the best interest of American children that we reform our public schools by having strong accountability at its core.
Our budget will honor commitments of America's senior citizens. Social Security and Medicare funds will be protected for Social Security and Medicare. We're now spending $216 billion on Medicare. Under my budget, Medicare spending will increase by more than $21 billion in 2002. My budget also locks away $2.6 trillion of the $5.6 trillion surplus for Social Security over the next 10 years. Our budget is fiscally responsible. If enacted, it will reduce debt by an unprecedented amount over the next four years. Altogether, about 60 percent of the projected federal surplus will be used to fund priorities and to reduce debt. After we've funded our priorities, after we have paid down an unprecedented amount of debt, we'll still have money left over, which leaves us with two options: First is to spend it on bigger government, or return it to the taxpayers who earned it. I believe it should be returned to the taxpayers. It's the people's money and the government ought to be passing it back after it's met priorities.
It's also necessary because these are uncertain times: increasing layoffs, growing consumer debt, lower consumer confidence. And lower taxes will help our economy.
This will be a responsible and fair budget that reflects the nation's priorities. I invite the American people to listen to what I have to say to the Congress.
I'd be glad to answer any questions.
QUESTION: In light of the latest spy scandal, should senior FBI officials be required to take polygraph tests? And secondly, what, if any, responsibility should the FBI director, Louis Freeh, bear for this breach of national security?
BUSH: I have confidence in Director Freeh. I think he does a good job. I have confidence in the men and women who work at the FBI.
I am deeply concerned about the current spy case, as is Director Freeh. He has made the right move in selecting Judge Webster to review all procedures in the FBI, to make sure that this doesn't happen again.
We ought to be concerned about espionage in America. In the statement I made the other day, I said we will be diligent. We will find spies, and we will prosecute them.
I am pleased that they caught the spy. Now the courts must act.
QUESTION: Polygraphs? Do you need polygraphs, though, to be able to catch...
BUSH: I look forward to seeing what Judge Webster has to say. I presume he's going to review that issue and will make a recommendation to the director and to me. (CROSSTALK)
QUESTION: Mr. President, do you believe that pardons were for sale in the Clinton White House? And what specifically do you think should be done to look into, to investigate, the circumstances of the president's brother-in-law accepting money to lobby him on pardons?
BUSH: David, as far as this White House is concerned, it's time to go forward. I've got too much to do -- to get a budget passed, to get reforms passed for education, to get a tax cut passed, to strengthen the military -- than to be worrying about decisions that my predecessor made.
I understand there's going to be some people on Capitol Hill that are going to be asking questions. It's their right to do so. But I can assure you our White House is moving forward.
And to the extent the Justice Department looks into this matter, it will be done in a nonpolitical way. During John Ashcroft's confirmation process I said that the Justice Department will conduct its business in a nonpolitical way, and we will do so.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up?
BUSH: Sure. Yes, David.
QUESTION: Other presidents are commenting on this matter. On the Rich pardon specifically, former President Carter said that in his opinion it was, quote, "disgraceful." Do you not have an opinion on a power that is absolute and is vested in you as the president?
BUSH: My opinion is, should I decide to grant pardons, I will do so in a fair way. I'll have the highest of high standards.
But the president made the decisions he made, and he can answer the questions raised by the American citizens and the press corps.
This White House is moving forward. We've got a lot to do. We've got a lot of people to convince on our agenda. I think we're making pretty good progress, but there's a lot of work to be done.
QUESTION: Mr. President, do you think that U.S.-Russian relations have been damaged by the new spy case? And separately, are the Russians showing any flexibility on a missile defense system?
BUSH: I intend to deal with Mr. Putin in a very straightforward way, to be up front with him on all matters. I am, of course, disturbed about the alleged espionage that took place. I'm mindful that there are people who don't particularly care what America stands for, and people are interested in our secrets.
Secondly, I was pleased to see comments from Russian leadership that talked about missile defense. Their words indicate that they recognize that there are new threats in the post-Cold War era, threats that require theater-based, anti-ballistic missile systems.
BUSH: I felt those words were encouraging.
When I meet with Mr. Putin, I'm going to talk to him about exactly what he meant by those words. We have not meeting set up yet, I might add. But I took that to be encouragement.
It reminded me of what happened after I met with Mr. Ivanov. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Putin also talked about theater-based systems and the ability to intercept missiles on launch. And to me, it's indicative of his recognition of the realities of the true threats in the post-Cold War era, threats from an accidental launch, or threats as a result of a leader in what they call a rogue nation trying to hold ourselves or our allies or Russia, for that matter, hostage. So I was pleased with what I saw.
QUESTION: Sir, the secretary of state is departing for the Middle East tomorrow. One of the things that he will be discussing with Middle East leaders is the possibility of modifying sanctions on Iraq. And I'm wondering what message he will take from this administration to leaders in the Middle East in the area of sanctions that matter, sanctions that are effective on the regime, but do not carry with them the same level of criticism that current sanctions have had in that they affect the Iraqi civilian population more than they do the regime, sir?
BUSH: We're reviewing all policy in all regions of the world. And one of the areas we've been spending a lot of time on is the Persian Gulf and the Middle East.
The secretary of state is going to go listen to our allies as to how best to effect a policy, the primary goal of which will be to say to Saddam Hussein, "We won't tolerate you developing weapons of mass destruction, and we expect you to leave your neighbors alone."
I have said that the sanction regime is like Swiss cheese. That meant that they weren't very effective. And we're going to review the current sanctions policy and review options as to how to make the sanctions work.
But the primary goal is to make it clear to Saddam that we expect him to be a peaceful neighbor in the region, and we expect him not to develop weapons of mass destruction. And if find him doing so, there will be a consequence.
We took action last week, and it may be on your mind as to that decision I made. The mission was twofold. One was to send him a clear message that this administration will remain engaged in that part of the world. I think we accomplished that mission; we got his attention. And secondly, the mission was to degrade his capacity to harm our pilots who might be flying in the no-fly zone, and we accomplished that mission as well.
QUESTION: Sir, if I could just follow up on what you said?
BUSH: Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: How would you characterize "sanctions that work," sir? BUSH: Sanctions that work are sanctions that when a -- the collective will of the region supports the policy, that we have a coalition of countries that agree with the policies set out by the United States. To me, that's the most effective form of sanctions.
Many nations in that part of the world aren't adhering to the sanctions policy that had been in place. And as a result, a lot of goods are heading into Iraq that were not supposed to. And so good sanction policy is one where the United States is able to build a coalition around the strategy.
QUESTION: Mr. President, if can I go back the controversy surrounding former President Clinton and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, are you at all concerned that these controversies are serving as a distraction for your administration's agenda? Are you concerned that further congressional hearings will mean that lawmakers will spend more time on those matters than on working on your policies?
BUSH: As I said earlier, I've got a lot of work to do. And I think I've got the Congress' attention; I certainly hope so. There's been a lot of discussion about tax relief. And I'm pleased with the progress being made on that important subject. There's a lot of hot debate that have already taken place, and we've just begun to make the case.
I'm beginning to travel around the country to important states. All states are important, of course, but some states may be more important than others right now in trying to convince some lawmakers to hear the message of the people. This is an issue that affects everybody who pays taxes.
Congress is listening to the debate, they're participating in the debate, there's a lot of discussion about education reform on the Hill. And I'm confident that the focus will be the right focus, and my speech Tuesday night I hope will help keep the focus on the agenda.
QUESTION: Mr. President, why do you refuse to respect the wall between church and state? And we know that the mixing of religion and government for centuries has led to slaughter. I mean, the very fact our country has stood in good stead by having a separation, why do you break it down?
BUSH: Well, I strongly respect the separation of church and state.
QUESTION: Well, you wouldn't have a religious office in the White House if you did.
BUSH: I didn't get to finish my answer, in all due respect.
I believe that so long as there's a secular alternative available, we ought to allow individuals who we're helping to be able to choose a program that may be run by a faith-based program or will be run by a faith-based program. I understand full well that some of the most compassionate missions of help and aid come out of faith-based programs, and I strongly support the faith-based initiative that we're proposing, because I don't believe it violates the line between the separation of church and state, and I believe it's going to make America a better place.
QUESTION: You are a secular official.
BUSH: I agree. I am a secular official.
QUESTION: On the airstrikes in Iraq, the Pentagon is now saying that most of the bombs used in those strikes missed their targets. Given that, what is now your assessment of how successful those strikes were? How much danger do the remaining installations that we missed in those strikes pose to our forces? And would you hit them again, if commanders in the field ask for authorization to do so?
BUSH: We had two missions. One was to send a clear signal to Saddam, and the other was to degrade the capacity of Saddam to injure our pilots. I believe we succeeded in both those missions.
The bomb assessment damage report is ongoing, and I look forward to hear what the Pentagon has to say as they fully assess, completely assess, the mission.
And I will continue to listen to commanders in the field. My job as commander in chief is to get input from the commanders in the field, and we will do everything needed to protect our pilots, to protect the men and women who wear the uniform.
QUESTION: You said that your $1.6 trillion tax cut is reasonable and responsible within the outlines of the budget you're going to present. If when that gets to Congress, things start getting layered on to it, like corporate tax cuts, capital gains, would you still support it? And if it reached your desk at a higher number, would you sign it?
BUSH: As you know, I shy away from hypotheticals. I am going to resist the Christmas tree effect of tax policy. I don't want people putting ornaments on my plan.
I have made it clear to the business interests that the best tax policy is one that reduces the taxes on the people, and I hope they listen to me, and I hope they help me get the tax plan through that I have proposed.
And the reason I feel so strongly about that is, one, a marginal cut will help the economy. Secondly, I am deeply concerned about high energy prices and their affect on the working people in the country. I am concerned about consumer debt. I know there's a lot of talk in Washington about paying down the national debt, and that's fine and good, and our budget will do so. But I am very concerned about the fact that a lot of consumers in our country have got high consumer debt. And I believe we need to share some of their money with them so they can help manage their own personal finances. And I will resist the temptation by folks to pile on their pet projects onto our tax cut.
QUESTION: But if they do pile on?
BUSH: Well, first of all, I'm not willing to admit defeat right here, before I've begun to fight, or persuade, let me put it to you that way. I think I've got a pretty good case, and I think that many of the business interests will hear that case.
QUESTION: Mr. President?
BUSH: Yes, sir?
QUESTION: You've shown a lot of interest in the Latin American issues, I have a double question for you. First on Colombia, you will be meeting on Tuesday with President Pastrana, and a lot of people are still worried about duplications of Plan Colombia, which your predecessor set in motion, about possible future military involvement of the United States. I want to know your impression of Plan Colombia.
And my second question has to do with the free trade agreement for Latin America. You're going to be going to Quebec in April. Are you going to ask for fast-track approval so this thing can get going again, because it's been kind of dormant lately?
BUSH: I appreciate that question. I'd love to have fast-track approval. I think it's going to be important to work with our neighbors to the south and Canada to the north to promote free trade throughout the hemisphere.
I spoke to the prime minister of Canada this morning, and that subject came up about the upcoming summit. And so we're going to begin the process in Congress. Ambassador Zoellick will be working with members of Congress to lay the groundwork for the ability for the president to have what they call fast-track negotiating authority.
Secondly, I look forward to my meeting with President Pastrana. I'm looking forward to the briefing that he'll bringing from Colombia.
And I, too, am worried about ever committing the United States military to an engagement in that part of the world. I know we're training, and that's fine. But the mission ought to be limited to just that. And so I share the concern of those who are worried that at some point in time the United States might become militarily engaged.
Now, in terms of the success of the mission, the president's going to bring me his firsthand account of what is taking place in the country.
I am concerned about the amount of acreage and cultivation for the growth of coca leaves. We've got to do a better job of working with the Colombia government on its eradication program.
I had a long talk about the Andes with President Fox. I'm convinced President Fox will be a stabilizing influence for that part of the world. Fortunately, I've got a good relationship, so that he will share with me his insights as things develop. He has had meetings with Mr. Pastrana, Mr. Chavez. And I believe Vicente Fox is going to be a stabilizing influence and a positive influence in the Andes.
QUESTION: Mr. President, on Iraq, what is your understanding of the Chinese presence in Iraq, especially with regard to constructing military facilities? And do you see anything that you see as a violation of U.N. sanctions?
BUSH: We're concerned about the Chinese presence in Iraq, and my administration is sending the appropriate response to the Chinese. Yes, it's troubling that they'd be involved in helping Iraq develop a system that will endanger our pilots.
QUESTION: Any idea of what they're doing, sir? Are you going...
BUSH: Well, we think that that may be the case. Let me tell you this: It's risen to the level where we're going to send a message to the Chinese.
QUESTION: Mr. President, are you going to speak with Tony Blair later?
QUESTION: Mr. President, when you campaigned -- I know you want to move forward on this question of pardons, but when you campaigned, you talked about the legacy of the '60s, where leaders didn't stand up and take their moral role and say, "Something's been done wrong here." You want to move forward, but on the question of these pardons, do you feel there's any moral obligation, in terms of your office, to stand up and say to those who may be watching, "Look, something has been done wrong here"?
BUSH: I think the press corps will ferret out any wrongdoing. My job is to assure the American people that this administration will have the highest ethical standards, and we're going to move forward. The president made decisions he made, and I made the decision in this White House to move forward, and we will.
QUESTION: President Bush, given the questions that are being raised about the involvement of Senator Hillary Clinton's brother in the pardons process, what kind of guidance would you give the members of your own politically active family in not only seeking pardons, but seeking any other influence on any other issues with your administration?
BUSH: My guidance to them is, "Behave yourself." And they will.
QUESTION: Mr. President, to follow up on your answer on the tax question, perhaps looking at it the other way, some people are saying that perhaps it's too large a tax cut, and that...
BUSH: Some are saying it's too small, some are saying it's too large, and I'm saying it's just right. QUESTION: But are you willing...
BUSH: I interrupted.
QUESTION: You were not willing to be flexible in terms of people who want to increase the size. Are you willing to be flexible with people who want to lower the size of your tax cut?
BUSH: I think it's just right. We thought long and hard about the right number. This is a well-planned-out tax relief package that addresses the concerns of working Americans. It is needed, it is necessary, it will make a very positive difference in the lives of people who pay taxes. And our country can afford it.
There is a choice we have to make. Once we meet priorities, do we increase the size of the government or do we increase the amount of money in the pockets of the people who are working for a living? It is the right size, and it is the right time for tax relief in the country.
QUESTION: On that same subject.
BUSH: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: Your tax and budget package, how can you be sure that, as you put it, there will be money left over. All it would take would be a less than 1 percentage point drop in productivity for that out- year surplus to dwindle or maybe even vanish. And also, nobody, including Alan Greenspan, thinks that it would provide much of a current stimulus.
BUSH: First of all, I think, given the choice between increasing the baselines of the budget, the extent to which it has been increased in the past, and passing money back to the people, I think Mr. Greenspan, not to put words in his mouth, but it seems like -- well, why don't I just put some words in his mouth.
It seems like what he said in his testimony is, he'd rather see tax relief rather than increasing the size of the budgets beyond the needs of the country.
Secondly, I believe we can do a heck of a lot better in growing our economy than the basic assumptions in the 10-year plan. I believe that good monetary policy, good fiscal policy, good regulatory policy, good trade policy, will enable our economy to grow beyond the scope that is envisioned in the current budget projections.
Secondly, I believe as well that if we don't pass some of the money back to the people who pay the bills, it is going to be spent. And I worry about a bloated federal government serving as a drag on economic growth.
QUESTION: Mr. President, you have a meeting with Prime Minister Blair tomorrow.
QUESTION: There are some concerns in this country about the European plan for what they call a rapid-reaction force, their own military capability. What will you tell Prime Minister Blair about the American attitude to this rapid-reaction force?
BUSH: I first look forward to the visit. I'm anxious to meet the prime minister. We've had a couple of good conversations on the telephone. I'm thankful that he's coming across the -- actually, coming down from Canada, but coming across the sea to visit us. Laura and I are looking forward to having a private dinner with he and Mrs. Blair Friday night.
We'll be having a press availability after our meeting, and...
QUESTION: I think that other people would like to...
BUSH: Well, why don't we wait until after he and I visit, so I don't have to give the same answer twice.
QUESTION: This is on the whole outline of the crisis of the European defense capability.
BUSH: You bet. I understand. You're trying to get me to tell you the answer twice.
Britain and the United States have got a special relationship; we'll keep it that way. I look forward to talking to the prime minister about the importance of NATO. Anyway, let me visit with him first, and I promise to call upon you tomorrow.
QUESTION: You talked a lot about areas of the budget that are going to increase. Education. Today you talked about Medicare. You talked before a little bit about defense. You haven't talked much about the areas where, to come in with a budget that's going to be responsible, you'll have to do some cuts.
QUESTION: Where might we see you take the red pen to the budget?
BUSH: Let me remind you that, and the people who are listening, that accounting in Washington is a little different than the way normal -- I shouldn't say normal people -- the average person accounts.
(LAUGHTER) BUSH: This is a town where, if you don't increase the budget by an expected number, it's considered a cut. We're going to slow the rate of growth of the budget down. It should come to no surprise to anybody that my budget is going to say loud and clear that the rate of growth of the budget -- for example, from last year -- was excessive.
And so we'll be slowing the rate of growth of the budget down. And that, evidently, is a cut. In my parlance, it's not a cut. When you increase spending, it's not a cut. I will be glad to explain some of the slowdowns and some of the increases and perhaps a decrease or two after we put the budget out. Let me submit it to you -- let me submit it on Tuesday, and then I'd be glad to answer any questions.
Thank you for this.
I look forward to future press conferences.
BUSH: Well, yes, of course.
QUESTION: Once a week?
BUSH: Oh, you don't want to see me once a week. You'll run out of questions.
QUESTION: You mean twice.
BUSH: Oh, twice. I'll be running out of ties.
BUSH: Thank you very much.
WATERS: Promising regular news conferences, but not so many as to run out of ties. President Bush has had his first toe-to-toe with the Washington press corps as president.
He touched on free trade in the hemisphere, making sanctions work in Iraq, engaging Russia in serious talk about missile defense. He said, on the arrest of Robert Hanssen, the veteran FBI agent suspected of passing secrets to Russia, that he is pleased that he has been apprehended, but deferred all answers as to how it could have happened and how it could be been prevented from happening in the future to William Webster, former director of the FBI -- will head the blue- ribbon panel looking into that matter.
It seemed like the thrust of the day was George Bush's effort from the bully pulpit to get his budget priorities past the Congress, as he introduces his tax cuts and his budget priorities, which he calls responsible, reasonable and balanced.
We have Kelly Wallace in the room, as you heard the president call out her name.
I guess the question I have is how you think the president did before the Washington press corps his first time out.
KELLY WALLACE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That is exactly right, Lou. This was, of course, his first news conference since he became president. And you see he does display quite a personal style, definitely has a rapport with many of the reporters who have been covering him for the past year-and-a-half. That does come through here at this news conference.
And while the president did take a number of questions on domestic matters, including his budget and his tax and education priorities, as well as controversies swirling around former President Clinton, he did also take a number of international-policy questions -- as you mentioned, this really the first time the president in a forum like this taking a good number of questions on international affairs, talking about what to do about Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, the U.S.'s controversial push for a national missile defense system -- also talking about his upcoming meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the president conveniently deflecting a question there, saying that he would address that tomorrow.
So, overall, the president really seemed to address more questions, obviously, than he has ever done before as president, on both domestic and international matters -- Lou.
WATERS: And he still absolutely refuses to say anything about this Clinton pardon controversy.
WALLACE: Absolutely. You know, the Bush mantra from the beginning has been that this White House is moving forward; it is not looking back. We heard the president himself saying that he is looking ahead, his aides are looking ahead. He refused to engage and offer an opinion about the pardons, the controversial pardon surrounding fugitive financier Marc Rich, as well as the latest revelations regarding President Clinton's brother-in-law, Hugh Rodham, the president saying those were President Clinton's decisions; he is not stepping in.
And we also asked him if he thinks these controversies are distracting his administration's agenda, distracting lawmakers' attention from working on his agenda. He seemed to say no. He seems to say that he has Congress' attention and that he believes his administration is making progress --Lou.
WATERS: All right, CNN's Kelly Wallace in the Briefing Room of the West Wing, where President George W. Bush has just conducted his first news conference and promises to have them quite frequently -- Natalie.
ALLEN: And let's talk more about it with senior political analyst Bill Schneider, who was listening and watching as well from our Washington bureau.
Bill, as his first step up to the plate to face the press corps there in the famous room before the famous seal, how did he handle it?
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think the press knew that they were not dealing with Bill Clinton anymore. He is a very different kind of person, who doesn't gives the same elaborate deeply-informed, policy-specific answers.
You would ask Bill Clinton a question about Iraq and he would give you the history of Iraq. Bush, in many cases, was not terribly responsive to the questions. For instance, on the rapid-response force in Europe, he was asked about that as a topic with Tony Blair. He said he will answer it after his discussion with Blair. When asked about what cuts he would make in the budget, he wasn't terribly specific, except to say, generally he wanted to slow the rate of growth down.
I thought that he might have missed an opportunity when he was asked about the pardons and he was invited by a reporter to make a statement about the moral role of the government and how he would state that. And he said he thought the press corps would ferret out any wrongdoing and simply stepped back from that question. So he is a president who clearly has a -- seems himself in a different role in these press conferences than President Clinton.
ALLEN: All right, what about the Bush administration? As Kelly Wallace reported, that's the new mantra, really not to say a word about if or have an opinion on that.
SCHNEIDER: It's probably smart. because they don't want to be perceived as pursuing this issue and trying to make a cause of it. Anything the president said about that, the pardons, would immediately be front-page news and he would be seen as encouraging what will be -- would be depicted by Clinton's friends and supporters as a partisan witch hunt. He wants to stand back from that because, look, as the president said, the press is doing that job.
The press is pursuing this story. He may resent the fact that press is giving former President Clinton a lot more attention recently than they have been giving him and his agenda. But he's not letting that be known.
ALLEN: Well, certainly, they called this news conference. And now Mr. Bush will be on the front page as well tomorrow. Do you think that that was part of a tactic here, once we see that the Clintons, like it or not -- they probably don't like it -- but continue to dominate the front pages?
SCHNEIDER: Well, that's true. And the president specifically made it -- brought attention to his tax cut, which may be losing a little steam since a couple of moderate Republican senators have indicated that they have some problems with it.
And right now does it doesn't command a majority in the United States Senate, which is evenly divided. The president has said he is trying to go to the people, to make the case for it. He said: We have just begun to make the case to the American people. And he wants to build popular support. But as long as the people are diverted by other kinds of issues, it is going to be hard for him to do that. So clearly he wants to put his agenda, particularly that tax cut agenda, to the people to make the case to them, and through them to the Senate, that this has got to pass.
ALLEN: All right, we will be hearing more about it. Bill Schneider, from Washington, thanks, Bill.
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