THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS CONFERENCE BY THE PRESIDENT
The East Room
3:33 P.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon.
Ladies and gentlemen, last night and again this morning I spoke with both Republicans and Democrats to congratulate those who won and console those who lost their elections. I also called the leaders of the next Congress, Senator Dole and Congressman Gingrich, to tell them after this hard-fought campaign that we are ready to work together to serve all the American people in a nonpartisan manner.
The American people sent us here to rebuild the American Dream, to change the way Washington does business to make our country work for ordinary citizens again. We've made a good start by cutting the deficit, by reducing the size of the federal government, by reinventing much of our government to do more with less. We have increased our investment in education and expanded trade, and our economy has created more than five million jobs.
We've also made a serious start in the fight against the terrible plague of crime and violence in this country. I remain committed to completing the work we have done. Still, in the course of this work, there has been too much politics, as usual, in Washington; too much partisan conflicts; too little reform of Congress and the political process. And though we have made progress, not enough people have felt more prosperous and more secure, or believe we were meeting their desires for fundamental change in the role of government in their lives.
With the Democrats in control of both the White House and the Congress, we were held accountable yesterday. And I accept my share of the responsibility in the result of the elections.
When the Republican Party assumes leadership in the House and in the Senate, they will also have a larger responsibility for acting in the best interest of the American people. I reach out to them today, and I ask them to join me in this center of the public debate where the best ideas for the next generation of American progress must come.
Democrats and Republicans have often joined together when it was clearly in the national interest. For example, they have often chosen to put international affairs above politics. I urge them to do so again by passing the GATT agreement this year. Our prosperity depends upon it, and there can be no compromise when the national interest and the livelihood of American households are at stake.
Last night the voters not only voted for sweeping changes, they demanded that a more equally divided Congress work more closely together with the President for the interest of all the American people. So I hope that we can do that on GATT, and that by doing so, we will pave the way for further cooperation on welfare reform and on health care reform, on a continued investment in our people's educational opportunities, and the continued strength of our economy.
We must also take more steps to restore the people's faith in our political institutions, and agree that, further, in the best tradition of our own foreign policy, that politics will continue to stop at the water's edge.
To those who believe we must keep moving forward, I want to say again, I will do everything in my power to reach out to the leaders and the members of this new Congress. It must be possible to make it a more effective, more functioning institution. It must be possible for us to give our people a government that is smaller, that is more effective, that reflects both our interests and our values.
But to those who would use this election to turn us back, let me say this: I will do all in my power to keep anyone from jeopardizing this economic recovery, by taking us back to the policies that failed us before. I will still work for those things that make America strong -- strong families, better education, safer streets, more high-paying jobs, more prosperous and peaceful world.
There is too much at stake for our children and our future to do anything else. Well, a lot has changed since yesterday. But what hasn't changed is the reason I was sent here and the reason the members of the Congress will be sent here -- to restore the American Dream and to make this country work, this government work, this city work for the interest of ordinary Americans again. That is what the American people expect of us.
Last night, they said they were not satisfied with the progress we had made. They said the Democrats had been in control of the White House and the Congress. They said they were going to make a change, and they did make a change. But they still want the same goal. I pledge today to work with all the members of the Congress, and especially the new Republican leadership, to achieve that goal. If they will work with me, and they have pledged to do so today, then we can make great progress for this country. We should be optimistic and we should work to make that optimism real.
Q Yesterday not a single Republican incumbent lost in any race for governor, House or Senate while the Democratic Party, your party, suffered its worst losses for decades. Do you view this as a repudiation of you, or is there another common denominator in this election that we're missing?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think that I have some responsibility for it. I'm the President. I am the leader of the efforts that we have made in the last two years. And to whatever extent that we didn't do what the people wanted us to do, or they were not aware of what we had done, I must certainly bear my share of responsibility, and I accept that.
You know, a lot of us haven't had a lot of sleep, and we're going to need a few days to digest all these results. There will be a lot of you doing exit surveys, asking the American people what they meant and said. But what I think they said is, they still don't like what they see when they watch us working here. They still haven't felt the positive results of things that have been done here that they agree with when they hear about them, but they don't feel them. They're still not sure that we understand what they expect the role of government to be.
I think they want a smaller government that gives them better value for their dollar, that reflects both their interest and their values, that is not a burden to them, but empowers them. That's what I have tried to do, but I don't think they believe we're there yet -- by a long shot. They want us to do more.
I went back today and read my announcement speech for President, and I said in that speech that the job of government was to create opportunity and then to expect citizens to assume the responsibility to make the most of that opportunity. I think that's about where the American people are. They don't think we've done that yet.
And the only thing I think they knew to do yesterday was to try to make a change in the people who were in control and who had been. I regret that some of the people who lost are people who made this a lot better country and who will always, when the history books are written, get the credit they deserve, with hindsight, for helping to make the American people more secure.
I don't believe the American people were saying we're sorry the deficit has been reduced; we're sorry the size of government has been reduced; and we're sorry you've taken the tough stand on crime; we're sorry you're expanding trade. I don't believe that. I don't think they were disagreeing with a lot of the specifics. I do think they still just don't like it when they watch what we do up here, and they haven't felt the positive impact of what has been done. And since I'm the President, I have to take some responsibility for that.
Q Would you have survived if you had been on the ballot yesterday?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, some Democrats did. I like to think I would have because I believe that I would have been a ferocious defender of what we have done, and I hope that I could have characterized what the choices were. But I don't know that, and neither does anybody else.
I think it's important to say that yesterday's election, like every election, was fundamentally about the American people. And they looked at us and they said, we want some more changes, and we're going to try this and see if this works. There is a lot of evidence -- I've read it in a lot of your reporting -- that the American people believe, a majority of them, and have believed for decades now that divided government may work better than united government. As you know, I disagree with that -- why I did my best to make it work the other way.
But they didn't agree, and they're in charge. We all work for them, every one of us. And their will, their voice was heard. We got the message. And now we have to think about it, analyze it, rest up and move on. But this country is facing its problems. And what I think they told us was, look, two years ago we made one change; now we made another change. We want you to keep on moving this country forward, and we want you to accelerate the pace of change in the areas that I mentioned.
I do not believe they voted for reversals of economic policy or the positions on crime. I don't think they voted for a reversal of the Brady Bill or the military assault weapons ban. I don't believe that. So -- but I do think they sent us a message, and I tried to hear it. And we're going to work together and do the best we can.
Q What do you think this does for your expected bid for reelection, and how will you deal with Contract For America if there are proposed cuts to Social Security, Medicare, veterans' benefits, the whole nine yards?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, we've got plenty of time to worry about the next election. The American people are sick of the one they just had, and they want to get away from politics for a while. I think we should think about the people, their interests. I think we should say, what message were they sending us and what are we going to do about it, and how can we pull this country together. How can the Democrats and the Republicans in the Congress and the White House and the Republican leadership work together in a nonpartisan way to push this country forward.
Now, on the contract, as I said specifically in Cleveland and elsewhere, there are some things in that contract that I like. I hope the Congress will give me the line-item veto and do it quickly. If they do, we'll bring this deficit down even more quickly. I hope that we will have aggressive efforts to work together on welfare reform. I hope we will be able to still reduce several areas of federal spending and continue this whole reinventing government effort to do more with less.
The issue in the contract is what it has always been. I do not believe that we can afford to go back to the days of exploding deficits, which I believe would lead to a weaker economy, to lost jobs, and to a more difficult future for ourselves and for our children. So the question there is, how will all of this be paid for?
I do not believe, now many Republicans in the campaign said they do not believe that we should cut Social Security or Medicare. So if we can't cut Social Security or Medicare, if we must maintain the world's strongest defense -- which I think the Republican leadership and I are strongly in agreement on -- then what else are we going to do? And that will be a challenge. But, you know, give them a chance. They've got to enjoy their victory today. Give them a day or so to enjoy their victory, and don't push them too far in the future -- they will come to grips with that I'm sure.
Q Are you going to be able to compromise with them on that?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I'm not going to compromise on my convictions -- what makes America strong. We are stronger today, but we have more strength to get. We have to have -- I'll say again what I think makes our country strong -- strong families, better education, safer streets, more high paying jobs, a government that reflects their values and the interest of the American people, and work to make a world that's more prosperous and more peaceful. Those are the principles on which I do not intend to compromise.
But I want to work with them. Look, let me give you one example. I have always wanted to make the tax code more fair. The tax code is more fair today than it was when I took office. We did cut income tax rates for families with incomes of up to $27,000. They want to go further than that. I would like to go further than that. The question is, how far can we go; can we focus on working families with children; how are we going to pay for it? We have to answer now the details. And in large measure, that is a question that can only be answered by some sort of partnership and by getting their views. And again, I say: Let's give them a day or two to enjoy their victory, and then they'll have an opportunity to work forward.
Q Mr. President, following up on that, would you support a tax cut such as they propose in their Contract With America, of $500 for every family under $200,000 income if you don't think it's paid for? Or, would you veto it? Would you get into that kind of confrontational mode with them on something specific?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, let me say they have to have a chance to look at the budget now. When you're in opposition, you can be an advocate entirely. And you can put out ideas you think are good.
I hope we can find some way to continue to improve the fairness of the Tax Code, and to help middle-class working Americans.
When I was trying to reduce the deficit in 1993, and make the Tax Code fairer, we had to stop at $27,000 in income for families with children, working families with children, in our tax relief. I think perhaps we can go further. But I don't want to get into a lot of details today. I'd just say that if we do this, we need to pay for it. We don't need to explode the deficit again. We do not need to weaken the economic recovery again. We need to be responsible with our budget and with our future.
I still believe that the American people want us to do that.
Q Mr. President, you talked a moment ago about the role of government. And government's intervention seems to be what a lot of the voters ruled out, voted against. Are you willing to scale back your expectations in areas like health care and welfare reform, or are you going to go in with plans that look like the ones you had this past year and wait for them to compromise, or will you go to them with something less than you had asked before?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, let me say, if you look at the welfare reform issue -- let's take that first. I sent them a bill last March that is quite similar to one that several Republicans themselves have proposed. I don't think anybody would characterize it as a government intervention bill. It's a bill designed to move people from welfare to work after a certain set time to have tougher child support enforcement, to provide education and training and support for people who go into the workplace so they can know their children are all right.
I think there is over 80 percent support in this country among Americans of both parties, among people of all races and backgrounds for doing something like this. So I think we will get an agreement.
On the health care issue, I will concede that by the time the folks who were characterizing our program had finished with it, and one of your publications said that they thought about $300 million had been spent in lobbying against the health care reform, it looked like a government program designed to solve the problem by restricting the choices of the American people in injecting the government more into health care. That is not what I want to do, and I will concede this: I have got to find a way to reassure the American people that if they like what they've got, they can keep it.
But let me say, I remain committed to solving the health care problem. Last year another million Americans, almost all of them in working families, lost their health insurance. We have more and more people -- I talk to them all the time when I go out in the country -- small businesspeople and others who have health insurance that is so limited because their co-pays and deductibles are so high that all they've really got insurance against is losing their home if they get sick. So I remain committed to finding a way to keep Americans from losing their health insurance if they change jobs or someone in their family gets sick to controlling the cost increases in health care by market mechanisms, to providing ways for people in small businesses and self-employed people to buy health insurance at the same rates that those of us in government or big employers, working for big employers, can do it.
This is still a problem. And let me say, as the Republicans leaders know -- they've been here working on this budget -- we reduced both defense and domestic spending this year for the first time in 25 years. The only thing that went up this year was the cost of Medicare and Medicaid. So this problem will not go away, and I expect to work with the Congress to address it.
Q You seem to have backed yourself into a corner on the budget. You say that Medicaid and Medicare cuts will go to fund health reform. Will your next budget outline what you will do to keep the budget deficit going down, particularly if you won't cut Social Security?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I will work with the Republican leadership on that. I will be interested to see what their ideas are. I believe furthermore -- as you know, the Kerrey Commission has been looking at the whole entitlement question and the long-term implications for our country. I have said on the Medicare savings that I thought Medicare savings should be used to help deal with the health care problem -- because Medicare is paid for entirely by a payroll tax, the purpose of which is to deal with health care. So that's what I have said.
Now, Social Security I think should be dealt with on its own terms. As you know, several years into the future, it is projected that we will once again have a Social Security problem. Ten years ago, a bipartisan commission met and worked out the problems and dealt with that in ways that have, in essence, solved the Social Security problem well into the next century. But we must always be vigilant about that.
The point I want to make about Social Security though is that as a percent of our national income, Social Security is about the same as it was 20 years ago -- 22 years ago. The Social Security tax has, in fact, produced a surplus for some years now. So it doesn't seem to me to be the right thing to do to try to restrict benefits to recipients overall when the Social Security tax has more than paid its own way all these years.
Now, as you know, in the last session of Congress, we did ask most well-off -- about 12 or 13 percent -- of Social Security recipients, to pay taxes on a higher percentage of their income -- more like private retirees. But I do not believe we should be in the business of cutting Social Security to pay for a tax cut in some other area. I think that would be an error.
Q Mr. President, did you mean to say here, sir, that the message the voters sent yesterday was basically an extension of the demand for change they made when you were elected in '92, and that you've been going in the right direction, but perhaps made to go farther and faster with the sense of the same agenda?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think they were saying two things to me -- or maybe three. They were saying -- maybe 300 -- (laughter.)
I think they were saying, look, we just don't like what we see when we watch Washington -- and you haven't done much about that. You know, we haven't changed the lobbying reform laws. Congress is still not required to live under the same laws that it imposes on private employers. There's still no line item veto. There's still not campaign finance reform. We don't like it when we look at it. It's too partisan, too interest group oriented -- things don't get done, too many people up there playing politics. Democrats are in charge; we're holding you accountable. And we hope you hear this, Mr. President. I think they said that.
The second thing I think they said is, look, you may have done all these things, although we haven't heard much of it -- we're not sure we believe it. But even if the deficit is down, the government is smaller, more is being invested in education, the crime bill passed, and the economy is growing -- we still feel insecure. We don't feel that our incomes are going up, that our jobs are more stable, that our neighborhoods are safer, that the fabric of American life is growing more civilized and more law-abiding.
Then I think the third thing they were saying -- and this maybe gets to the point of your question -- is there are things we expect government to do, but we don't think government can solve all the problems. And we don't want the Democrats telling us from Washington that they know what is right about everything. We want the government to be smaller. We want it to be more efficient. We want it to create opportunity, to empower us. And we want it to demand responsibility of people who aren't behaving responsibly.
In short, we want it to reflect our interests and our values. And I think what they were saying is that the Republicans did a good job of defining us as the party of government, and that's not a good place to be. I think that was a clear message that they were sending in the election.
Q that you have said. Are you essentially saying that the electorate yesterday was agreeing with you?
THE PRESIDENT: I think they were agreeing with me, but they don't think we produced them. In other words -- let me say it in another way. I'm saying that I agree with much of what the electorate said yesterday. Now, there were segments of that majority the Republicans put together obviously that I do not agree with. And on matters of conviction I can't say I agreed with. I don't agree that we should repeal either the assault weapons ban or the Brady Bill. The NRA would like to do that; I don't think we should. I don't agree that the answer to the abortion problem is to criminalize abortion again. That was a big part of that vote. So I'm still prochoice, not because I'm pro-abortion; I'm not. But I still believe that it's a mistake to criminalize that. So I don't agree with all that.
But I think that the swing voters, the people that, first of all, voted for Bill Clinton and Ross Perot in '92 against the incumbent President, and then voted for the Republicans for Congress against the incumbent Democrats -- and in the challenging races and out in the country -- we're making a statement about what they think about government. They still believe that government is more often the problem than the solution. They don't want any party to be the party of government. They don't want the presumption to be that people in Washington know what's best. They do want the government to protect their interest, promote their values, I think, and to empower them. And then they want people held accountable.
So I'm saying that, to that extent, that message -- I got it. I accept responsibility for not delivering. To whatever extent it's my fault we haven't delivered back to the American people what they want on that I have to accept that responsibility.
But, you know, I've worked hard, the Vice President has worked hard on this whole business of downsizing the government, deregulating several areas of our national life. We have not done as much as we are going to have to do to satisfy the voters, but we also have to recognize that this government has a responsibility to protect and promote certain fundamental interests that I think the people really also want protected and promoted.
But they sent us a clear message. I got it, and I'm going to try to redouble my efforts to get there. I think that the Republican congressional leadership will at least have the chance to work with us. I'm going to do my dead-level best to do that, and to be less partisan. Most Americans are not strongly partisan and they don't want us to be.
Q Mr. President, if one of the signal messages of yesterday is that Americans want smaller government, how much smaller do they want it, and what can you do to shrink it?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, we're shrinking it already. One thing we can do --
Q What can you do that you haven't done already to shrink it?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think it's important, though -- let me put the record out. All we have to do is to stay with the present six-year plan and we will reduce the size of government by 272,000. We have already passed major laws to deregulate banking and interstate trucking. We have already given 20 states total freedom from federal regulations to pursue their welfare reform experiments, and about nine states freedom to pursue their health care experiments. And the education bill cuts a lot of federal strings that are tied to the states to improve the performance of children in the schools.
So what I think we have to do is to look at every single government department, every single government program and especially the nature of government regulation and ask ourselves: Is there a better way to do this? Is this something where the American people will think we're more of a burden than a help? Is there a way to give more flexibility to people at the state and local level and in private life to achieve the same goal?
We're going to have to continue, in other words, to review everything that this government does. And I think that there are more things that can be done. I'm going to propose them. I encourage the Republicans in Congress to propose them, and the Democrats in Congress to propose them. I think that this is -- we're in the middle of a revolution here in the way organizations work in America and the world, and the government is still behind the eight ball, and we're going to have to keep pushing until people believe that they have a government that works for them, that they have confidence in, and that they think gives them good value for their dollar, and it doesn't overreach where they think it shouldn't overreach.
Q Mr. President, you know, the Republicans are taking over the Senate now and the House, so they'll be in charge of all of the committees. Are you especially concerned that Senator Alphonse D'Amato, if he becomes chairman of the Senate Banking Committee and Representative Jim Leach, if he becomes Chairman of the House Banking Committee, will now intensify their Whitewater investigations?
THE PRESIDENT: No, I have said I would cooperate with the Congress, and I will continue to cooperate with the Congress, as I have. I think that they will have, obviously, other responsibilities as well now, and I think that they will just fulfill those responsibilities as they see fit. I'll do my best to fulfill my responsibilities.
Q Mr. President, the recurring refrain in the preelection interviews was that this was the nastiest campaign in modern times. Do you agree with that? If you do agree, what do you think caused that, and what do you think can be done about it?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think it is -- the causes are many and complex, partly because of the real feelings people have about where they are in their own lives, what they saw here in Washington and how it was presented to them for a good long period of time -- partly because of the enormous expenditure of funds for negative ads of all kinds, and I think campaign finance reform would help some -- but let me say that there were pockets in this country, there were elections in this country where people won by being more positive and less negative, but they could only do it if the voters felt that they were part of a process.
If you ask me for one of the mistakes I think that I have made since I've been here, I have spent so much time trying to pass bills through Congress, that I haven't spent as much time as I was able to spend when I was running for President making sure that the people understood, were in on and felt a part of, the process by which we make decisions. And I believe that, again I will say, as much as the specific decisions that were made, it was the alienation people feel from the government and the process.
Let me just give you another example. If you look at North Dakota, where Senator Conrad and Congressman Pomeroy were elected in a state where I lost by a large margin in 1992, and yet, they supported these programs, these initiatives in the economic plan, I asked myself: Did that happen in part because it's a small enough state where people can talk together, they can work together, they are less easily moved by the negative ads? What can I do to use modern technology better, to work with the Republicans in Congress, and the Democrats to involve the American people in this as we go along?
What responsibility is there? In other words, the President can work 60, 70 hours a week and lose his voice several times and pass a bunch of bills. And if people don't feel that they're a part of it, then so what if I'm signing another piece of paper up here?
If you look at -- Governor Romer in Colorado has some very interesting thoughts about this and has worked very hard on this. But I think this is something that I'm going to have to really ask others about and get some advice about, because one of the things I prided the 1992 campaign on -- and I give credit to the other candidates as well -- but for all of the attacks and the criticisms in '92, the fact that there were some negative ads back and forth, the truth is, we had a big turnout based largely on hope.
We had three debates, one of which people were involved in -- ordinary citizens. We had countless town meetings -- two of the candidates did. We had other things that constantly made the American people feel that they had some say up here. And I think that -- to go back to Brit's question -- I think that part of it is they think that we get up here and we just get up every day and, even if we're working hard, we just are going this way, when they may want to go this way. And it just doesn't mean anything to them. They worry then about having a government that is more of a burden than a support. And it's something we have to find a way to crack. It's not a simple issue.
I'll take one more -- go ahead.
Q Do you feel at all that this election has pushed you politically to the right? And would you have any message for the Democrats in Congress, like Senator Shelby, who are considering -- or might be considering -- switching to the Republican Party?
THE PRESIDENT: I think he did switch.
Q Yes, but if there are Democrats in the House who are considering switching.
THE PRESIDENT: Oh, I see what you mean. Well, first of all let me say that if we can have a bipartisan coalition, then we can be both nonpolitical and more centrist. I ran for President saying that we should not be governed -- we should not be governed by either Republicans or Democrats who are pushed too far in either direction; that most of the good ideas are ideas that take us into the future, not push us left or right.
There were times when our ability to have cooperation in the Congress dictated a solution that came primarily out of the Democrats. When we got cooperation -- when we were able to work together -- to give you two examples -- on NAFTA, and on the crime bill I ultimately signed, we had a bill I think that resonated pretty well with the American people. So I feel good about that. I want to have a bipartisan cooperation.
A lot of the things they have advocated I have advocated -- like the line item veto, the lobby reform, the congressional reform, further reductions in unnecessary spending and regulation. I do not believe that we should give up on our efforts to make the economy stronger, the streets safer, our people better educated, our families more supported in the work of parenting and work. But I think there's a lot we can work together on that will be consistent with my convictions, consistent with what I have always believed, consistent with what I've always worked for. And when we can do that, we ought to do that.
I always felt, in the last two years, that we could work together, consistent with our convictions, more than we were working together because of politics. When we can't work together because our convictions are different, I will stand on my convictions.
Q Even before you ran for President, you had an idea of where the Democratic Party had to go to reclaim the center and become a majority again. Now that your party is a minority in Congress and in the state houses, what do Democrats have to do to avoid becoming a permanent minority party?
THE PRESIDENT: I think we have to, first of all, as I said, take a little nap, take a little sleep, take a little rest -- let the Republicans enjoy their victories -- and analyze why they won; and ask ourselves, to what extent do we also believe some of the things the voters believe.
You know, sometimes in life -- let me just say this -- sometimes in life, you have to be in the minority, because you just cannot, in good conscience, go along with what's popular. Sometimes that happens. I really regret the loss of some of these fine young progressive members of Congress who clearly are in them mainstream of their views to the people back home, because they could not defend themselves against either the efforts of certain groups on votes like the crime bill, or because they couldn't find a way to convince the majority of their constituents that when they voted for that economic plan it would bring the deficit down, it was a sacrifice worth making, it will make the country stronger. I regret that.
But those people did what was right for their country and for the future. And if they hadn't done it we wouldn't be where we are today economically, and we would be in a terrible fix with regard to the deficit. And we wouldn't have the middle-class college loan program -- we wouldn't have a lot of things. So I regret that.
But I think we have to analyze the results of the elections, hear what the voters were saying, and go back to them and say: We believe that the government is not inherently bad. We agree that the government needs to be smaller and more efficient. We believe it needs to reflect our values as well as our interests. And we believe that we have more to offer in that regard, and here is what it is and here is what the distinctions are.
That, I think, was the work that we have been trying to do for 10 years. I believe that a lot of these things that we saw yesterday were the culmination of many years of trends, as well as a dissatisfaction with the last two years. And I think that we have an opportunity now to go back and capture the imagination of the American people with good ideas consistent with democratic values.
I've got to go. Thank you.
END4:05 P.M. EST