Return to Transcripts main page


BArack Obama Nominates Veterans Affairs Secretary

Aired December 7, 2008 - 14:00   ET


NAAMUA DELANEY, CNN ANCHOR: President-Elect Barack Obama is about to hold a news conference in Chicago. We are standing by for the event, which is expected to get under way in just a couple of minutes.
And at this press conference, he is expected to announce his choice for veterans' affairs secretary, retired Army General Eric Shinseki will be his selection. Somebody who is a decorated, highly decorated Vietnam Era veteran as well as being somebody who's served as Army Chief of Staff from 1999 to 2003, also a gentleman who has seen his fair share of controversy.

Our own Candy Crowley is actually inside the venue where the press conference will be taking place, and we're hoping to bring her in with us right now live. Candy, what has Obama said about this selection?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, he hasn't said anything at this point. We're awaiting the news conference. We knew he was going to hold a news conference today. They let us know late last week, I guess. The Shinseki nomination, you know what? I'm going to stop talking. Here's the president-elect.

SEN. OBAMA, PREISDENT ELECT: Good afternoon. Please have a seat.

Earlier this week, I announced key members of my national security team. They've 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, namely 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 or our veterans a favor. We have a sacred trust to repay a favor, the favor that they have done us. And 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. 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 I 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, receive appropriate health care, and are able to support their families.

We don't just need to better serve veterans of today's wars. We need to build a 21st-century V.A. that will better serve all who've answered our nation's call.

That means cutting red tape and easing transition into civilian life. It means eliminating shortfalls, fully funding V.A. health care, and providing the benefits our veterans have earned.

That's the kind of V.A. 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 V.A. than the leader I'm 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 that they need.

A graduate of West Point, General Shinseki served two combat tours in Vietnam, where he lost part of his foot and was awarded two Purple Hearts and three Bronze Stars. Throughout his nearly four decades in the United States 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 that 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 V.A. secretary who finally modernizes our V.A. to meet the challenges of our time.

Nearly 70 years ago today, a date that will live in infamy, our harbor was bombed in Hawaii and our troops went off to war. General Shinseki and I both grew up in Hawaii, and we understand what that means.

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 G.I. 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 that I'm 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 V.A. secretary, General Eric Shinseki.

GEN. ERIC SHINSEKI, (RET), V.A. SECRETARY DESIGNATE: 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: Thank you, General.

OK. Let me take a few questions.

We'll start with Juliana (ph). Where -- there you are. You were sitting there last time. What, are you shifting to White Sox from Cubs? OK, go ahead. QUESTION: 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 G.M.'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 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 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 -- auto, or -- 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.

OK, Jonathan Martin, Politico. There you are.

QUESTION: 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 500,000 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, you know, these aren't just abstract numbers, that they ripple throughout the economy, and -- 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 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, you know, 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, 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 an 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 broadband 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 -- 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 -- 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 -- 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.

OK, where's Abner (ph) from the "Sun-Times"?

QUESTION: 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 Windows & Doors 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 there today, Representative Gutierrez 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 -- to keep them on employing 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 will be harder to get guns, even though your campaign was 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 -- and payments that they have earned, I think they're absolutely right and -- and understand that what's happening to them is reflective of what's happening across this economy.

You know, 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, but 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 students who are trying to get loans, and homeowners who have been making their payments on their homes, but are still finding their property's value 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.

OK. All right, guys. Thank you.

DELANEY: And you have been listening to President-Elect Barack Obama answering questions on a range of topics, the bailout of the auto industry, the staggering job losses in November, his economic stimulus package, but the main reason for the press conference, of course, was for Obama to announce that retired Army General Eric Shinseki will be his choice as secretary of veterans affairs.

Obama saying that we need the kind of V.A. that can serve our veterans as they have served us and saying that no one would be better to deliver that than General Shinseki. Looking at some of General Shinseki's achievements here, U.S. Army chief of staff, for example, from 1999 to 2003.

Our own Candy Crowley has been inside the venue listening to the press conference. And Candy, why specifically did Obama say that he had made this selection?

CROWLEY: Well, he felt that there was no one better qualified. Some of those things that you just mentioned. Is a man known inside the U.S. military as a rank and file general. He is well-liked within the service.

He is a man who, and you heard him allude to this a little bit, a man who no one should doubt, I think he said, who will stand up for what is right. No one should doubt his word.

I think a pretty clear reference to Shinseki's pre-Iraq War assessment of what he thought it would take as he put it, hundred of thousands of U.S. troops to try to settle Iraq down in the post war era.

So I think he looked at him as someone that he could press, someone who was well qualified and also we hear a lot from Barack Obama that what he would like is people who would stand up to him and tell him the truth. I think you could put General Shinseki in that category.

DELANEY: Yeah, certainly he has surrounded himself with some very strong personalities. When we think about Robert Gates, when we think about Senator Hillary Clinton.

Candy, we also want to bring in senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre, he is joining us now live from Washington, DC. And Jamie, of course we know that General Shinseki is famous to many because of that testimony he gave back this 2003, the testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Tell us the details of that and the ramifications.

Jamie, we are hoping that you can ...

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, a little bit of a myth has grown up around that. It is true that General Shinseki was on the outs with the Bush administration and the Rumsfeld (inaudible), yes.

It's true that General Shinseki was on the outs with the Bush administration and particularly the Rumsfeld Pentagon because of that statement he made in the Senate Armed Services Committee.

But despite what a lot of people have thought, he wasn't really a forceful advocate for additional troops to go into Iraq or stay afterwards. He did offer his assessment that it would take several hundred thousand troops to settle Iraq down but also noted that that was about what had been deployed at the time.

He was someone who the Bush administration didn't and particularly the Pentagon at the time, didn't particularly get along with. He retired later that year.

But one thing he does get credit for is he's the one that began real transformation of the U.S. Army to a lighter, more mobile force that could be deployed more quickly. Something that Rumsfeld talked a lot about when he was defense secretary.

He is also someone who was wounded during the Vietnam War. He got two Purple Hearts, lost part of his foot. Not really somebody who is going to seek the limelight. He is a behind the scenes kind of worker. Very media shy when he was at the Pentagon. Rarely talked to the press but somebody who was very committed to his mission of transforming the Army.

And therefore, I think will probably bring that same sort of commitment to his job as veterans' affairs secretary.

DELANEY: Certainly we have heard veterans groups generally seem to be in support of the nomination. Thank you very much, Jamie.

Candy, we would love to get back to you and just ask you about some of these other matters that Obama tackled during the press conference. He talked, for example, about the half a million jobs that were lost during November. And some of the plans he has to try to turn that around. What did he say?

CROWLEY: Well, he said what we have been hearing him say, but we also watched him, once again, walking that line between current policy, like what's in the auto industry bailout, what does he think should be there? Does he think some of the management in the Big Three ought to go? He basically tends to punt those questions. Not wanting to enter into the fray of how this package ought to look.

They have worked behind the scenes, a lot of his economic team to try to help shape the package but it's not something he wants to get into publicly. He would rather talk about long range and to the Obama transition team, long range is January 20. They are hoping to put out part and parcel part of his economic recovery plans. You heard him talk about schools and rebuilding roads. He wants to pump government money into things that will create jobs of the so the-call ready to go projects in states and localities that have a bridge that needs to be repaired or a road that needs to be built.

But within a short time, a couple of months, if you gave them money, they would be able to put people back to work.

He's talking about energy conservation in government building. Saying listen, we need to -- not only do we need to recreate the heating systems in some of these big government buildings, but it will put people to work to do that. To switch out the light bulbs.

So it is a very sort of a micro as well as macro plan that he has but something that can't take place until he is sworn into office.

But as he puts out parts these various elements of his economic stimulus plan and his recovery plan, what they are hoping is that they will have it together enough, that Congress could work on that bill before he is actually inaugurated, so that once he is inaugurated, in the first week or second week, he could sign such a bill and get things moving.

DELANEY: Yeah. He is certainly on an aggressive timetable both with trying to get as you mentioned this bill and also trying to get his Cabinet nominations out there. Candy Crowley joining us live from Chicago. Thank you very much, appreciate it.

Also want to thank Jamie McIntyre joining us live from Washington, DC.

Right now, we want to return to AFTER PARTY that is currently in progress.