WASHINGTON — President Bush talked to USA TODAY's White House reporter David Jackson in advance of Tuesday's State of the Union address. Here are excerpts from the interview.
State of the Union
Bush began the conversation by outlining themes he'll address during Tuesday's State of the Union speech:
"I'm going to remind Congress that we've got to show the American people that we're capable of accomplishing some big things; that we need to come across the aisle and work together to … make opportunity and hope more prevalent in the country. In other words, there's big things we can do.
"I'm going to spend, obviously spend time about the war on terror. I will back up the speech I gave last week with some more talk about Iraq … but I'm also going to talk about Iraq in the larger context of a global and ideological struggle. My point is going to be, what happens in Iraq matters to your security here at home.
"I'm going to talk about how our foreign policy is more than just spreading freedom, it's also to help people who suffer from disease and hunger. I'm going to talk about the malaria initiative, and how the Congress needs to keep funding the HIV/AIDS initiative."
Question:How are you going to (balance the budget) without cutting some big programs (which would) produce a lot of political opposition?
Answer: Well, we have cut the deficit in half three years ahead of time by setting priorities and keeping taxes low. My point to the Congress is, it's working, and I'll submit a budget to show you exactly how to do that. … They (Congress) need to reform the earmark process. And I will remind them that we have an obligation to do the hard work on reforming Social Security.
Q: You're in the midst of a program to try to explain your new program (on Iraq). We've had no weapons of mass destruction, we've had continuing violence, we've had problems — are you afraid that people are going to just tune you out, in terms of Iraq?
A: People want to know whether or not we've got a plan to succeed. And I will tell them that the plan I have … and what I will then summarize in the speech, again, is the best chance to succeed. A lot of Americans understand that failure … could lead to great danger for the United States — if we fail in Iraq, this country becomes less secure.
Q: Are you seeing any evidence that people are listening or responding to your argument?
A: What matters is what happens on the ground. That would be the best way to show the American people that the strategy, the new strategy I've outlined, will work.
Q: Are you worried about a mass exodus from your party over Iraq?
A: There's no question there's a lot of skepticism, both Republicans and Democrats. And the best way to convince them that this makes sense is to implement it and show them that it works; show them that there is security in the capital … And what I would say to the members of Congress … for those who have condemned the plan before it had a chance to work, that you have a special obligation to put forth a plan that you think will work.
Q: Now Gen. Casey said today we're talking a surge of four to six months. Now after six months, can people start looking forward to bringing troops home?
A: We don't set timetables in this administration because an enemy will adjust their tactics based upon perceived action by the United States.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki
Q: What specifically do you see in (al-Maliki) to make you think he is, in fact, the right guy for Iraq?
A: The Iraqi government has put out benchmarks. They have said they're going to move brigades into Baghdad, which is necessary to have the security plan work.
Last time … Iraqi battalions didn't show up in Baghdad, and there weren't enough troops to clear and hold. And so the prime minister, in the plan that he submitted to his people and worked with us on, said, "I will commit three brigades." And he said he has done so.
Secondly, he said the rules of engagement will be changed. In other words, Iraqi troops and U.S. troops will be able to chase down these death squad leaders and these people that are wreaking havoc on some of the neighborhoods inside of Baghdad, regardless of their political affiliation. I said that's important. And then notice the other day that 500 or 600 (Shiite) militia have been brought to justice as a result of … primarily Iraqi-led operations with U.S. help.
And so those are two areas right there on the security front where he has said he's going to do something, and he's beginning to do it. What matters to me is what happens on the ground.
Thirdly … we're beginning to see some progress toward an oil law. And my point to … the government, particularly Prime Minister Maliki, is we appreciate you saying you're going to do these things and now is the time for you to do them, and he's beginning to.
Q: What makes you think he really will? Because there seems like some tension between him and you or him and the Secretary of State?
Q: Well, he criticized your comments about the hanging (of Saddam Hussein), for example.
A: I have got a good working relationship with Prime Minister Maliki. What matters, though, David, is his primary audience is the Iraqi people. He was elected after 12 million people went to the polls. Most people want to live in peace. Most people want to have a chance to succeed in life. Most people want the riches of a country shared.
And so the prime minister and his government put out plans to spend $10 billion to help with jobs and to help improve people's lives. He said he's going to do it, and the Iraqi people expect him to do it, and so do we.
Iraq after Bush's presidency
Q: Now I've often heard you say during the campaign, "The job of the president is to confront problems, not to pass them on to future presidents or future generations." Is Iraq going to be a problem for the next president?
A: The war on terror will be a problem for the next president. Presidents after me will be confronting with this, with an enemy that would like to strike the United States again, an enemy that is interested in spreading their vision — I call it a totalitarian vision of governance — an enemy that will kill innocent people to achieve their objectives and an enemy that would like to acquire weapons that could do serious damage.
This will be a long struggle. That's one reason why I believe it's important to increase the size of our United States Army and Marines, so future presidents will be in a position to utilize our military, if need be, to stay on the offense. It's also why I felt like the ruling … on (the) terrorist surveillance program was very important, because presidents will need to use this tool to better protect the homeland.
Q: Where do you see Iraq on Jan. 20, 2009? What kind of shape will it be in?
A: I see, first of all, Baghdad as a place where Iraqis, more and more, are taking the lead in operations, just like they did the other day in taking the lead against (Shiite) killers, but operations against people who would do harm to the Iraqi citizens. I see an atmosphere that had been affected by violence begin to change, and for people to begin to have faith in their government. I see the Iraqi government working the reconciliation process with an oil law, and changing the de-Baathification law — in other words, working for unity. I see a young government getting confidence, this unity government getting confidence, so that it can govern itself and sustain itself.
Q: Will the U.S. be out of Iraq in January of '09?
A: That's a timetable; I just told you we don't put out timetables. But I agreed with the Baker-Hamilton commission report that we need to be in a position where the Iraqis are in the lead and we would be embedded and/or training … additional Iraqi forces so that the people see that there's security on their behalf, and it's secured by Iraq.
From Bush's description of the State of the Union: "I also want to talk about health care, remind the Congress that … we have a duty to provide help for the elderly and the poor, and for children, and the disabled, when it comes to health care. And we'll meet those obligations.
"We must work to make … health insurance more available. And there are … two new ideas that I'm going to talk about. One is changing the tax code, and I'm going to spend some time at the speech giving it, and would rather do it then, but just change the tax code."
Q: Well, give me a little bit.
A: Change the tax code, as well as … provide flexibility and work with states to help increase the individual health insurance market. So it will have two effects: when you increase the individual market, it helps the cost of insurance for individuals, and it makes insurance more available to individuals.
Q: Going back to health care, what do you think of Gov. Schwarzenegger's plan for California? (Schwarzenegger has proposed universal health insurance for Californians.)
A: One of the interesting things, whether it be Gov. Schwarzenegger's or … former governor (Jeb) Bush of Florida or Gov. (Mitt) Romney of Massachusetts … What you're seeing is people devising plans that meet the needs of their particular state, and I believe a proper role of the federal government is to encourage them to work on plans that will deal with the uninsured for their state.
Q: But doesn't that create kind of a patchwork system? Because some people have said maybe we should have a national program to guarantee health care.
A: There's a lot of people in Washington that say the federal government ought to run health care. I'm not one.
Q: So you would encourage all states to develop their own plans?
A: Absolutely. Just like I've been encouraging the industry to develop new plans like health savings accounts.
Q: The rumor around the Hill is that the Democrats may consider some kind of personal accounts (for Social Security) if you'll consider tax increases to help finance them.
A: First of all, we ought to meet and we ought to meet in the spirit that, bring your best idea, and we'll sit down and see whether or not there's common ground to solve the problem. First thing is to get a commitment from people of both parties and both chambers to agree to work with the administration.
Q: But would you consider raising the … limit on income that's subject to the Social Security tax?
A: No preconditions for any talks. In other words, things are not in, things are not out. What I expect is people to come and say, here's the best way that we expect to solve the problem.
Q: Some of your conservative base are worried that you may be reconsidering your pledge against no new taxes.
A: I've showed that you can solve Social Security without raising taxes. I think it's important for people to bring their best ideas to the table to find if there's common ground on how to solve the problem. The first thing is to get people to commit to come to the table
Bush described some of his energy plans:
"I'll remind Congress we've made great strides in new technologies, but there's more we can do. And we need to be robust in our funding of technologies to enable us to diversify away from oil. I fully recognize oil and gas … will be necessary as we transition to new ways … to power our automobiles. But we have an opportunity now to really set new standards … I'm just going to talk about a bold initiative that really encourages America to become less dependent on oil."
Q: Are you going to propose a climate change plan, because that's the rumor in Europe.
A: My position is very clear. This is an issue that we can work together on. But I laid out an efficiency standard … and we're meeting those goals. There's no question, however, the new technologies I'll be outlining will help us deal with the issue of greenhouse gases. In other words, the way to solve the problem is to promote new technology.
Q: What kind of expansion do you want of No Child Left Behind?
A: Actually, the reforms within No Child Left Behind that are necessary (are) flexibility without backsliding on standards; flexibility at the local level to help people improve failing schools; and making sure that parents have got the option of moving after a period of time if their child is stuck in a failed school.
Q: Do you see any changes in the (terrorist surveillance) program?
A: I'm not going to talk about the specifics of the program. You know it's a highly classified program, but I can say yesterday's ruling was very important for the security of this country. The program goes on, and it will make it easier for future presidents to accept the program.
Q: Can you say whether there's any change in the operation of the program?
A: I can say that this program has not been weakened.
Q: I'm just curious, given all this tension, are we chancing a military confrontation with Iran?
A: Our position is very clear, that if we catch the Iranians moving weapons into the country that harm our troops or Iraqi troops, we will deal with it. In other words, we don't want these weapons or weapons supply groups inside of Iraq.
Secondly, our position is very clear on whether Iran ought to have a nuclear weapon. And my message to the Iranians has been echoed by others. It's not just the United States speaking. But you've got members of the United Nations Security Council, including China and Russia, all placing Iran under a Chapter 7 U.N. resolution, which sends a clear signal to the Iranian people that the government — that their government is in the process of isolating this country. An isolated Iran means people won't be able to realize their full potential. So we'll continue to work diplomatically to solve the problem.
Q: If there's a confrontation with Iran inside of Iraq, are you worried about some kind of Iranian retaliation?
A: The Iranians have heard my message that they should not be inside of Iraq providing weapons that will harm our troops or anybody else's. And the only way there will be a confrontation inside of Iraq is if they continue to try to promote these weapons.
Q: Are you willing to go against parts of your conservative base to secure a "guest worker" program on immigration?
A: As you know, I sat right behind that desk and spoke to the United States of America. And if you want to know my position, just review that tape. I believe we need a comprehensive immigration plan, and said so to the public, via the Oval Office, and will again speak about it during the State of the Union.
Q: Did you see The Washington Post historical forum on your legacy, because one of the historians, Eric Foner, called you the worst president ever.
A: No, I didn't see it.
Q: Is that something that bothers you?
A: My legacy will be written long after I'm president.
Q: I know you're a fan of history, though. Do you see yourself as a possible Truman?
A: I've got two years to be president. I guess people with idle time like yourself can think about this. I've got a job to do, and I'm going to do it.
Q: Have you read about Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam?
Q: Do you draw any lessons from that?
A: Yes, win. Win, when you're in a battle for the security … if it has to do with the security of your country, you win.
Q: Are you worried about suffering LBJ's fate?
A: You can ask the legacy question 20 different ways. I've got a job to do as president. People are going to analyze my presidency for a long time. All you can do is do the best you can, make decisions based upon principles, and lead. And that's what I have done and will continue to do.
Q: Should Mark McGwire be in the Baseball Hall of Fame?
A: I don't have a vote.
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