Following is the White House transcript of The Washington Post's interview with President Bush, conducted by staff writers Michael A. Fletcher and Jim VandeHei Friday aboard Air Force One en route to Jacksonville, Fla.:
THE PRESIDENT: Okay, let me start off a little bit by answering some questions. I'm looking forward to the inauguration. I'm going to be able to absorb a lot more of the sights, sounds, the drama this time. I think last time I was in awe of the whole moment. Having done it once, if experience is any judge -- the convention experience is any judge about this, I'm really looking forward to kind of being as much a participant and observer at the same time -- a much more heady observer.
I'm excited about the second term. I worked hard to get there, and campaigned on some specific issues that I'm looking forward to working with the Congress on. Priorities for the second term: of course, win the war on terror, spread freedom and democracy. And at home, reform systems that will say that we have recognized we've got problems for future generations that we intend to deal with. One is Social Security, one is the tax system. As well, I'm mindful of the twin deficits we face. The fiscal deficit -- we will address the fiscal deficit in two ways: one, by submitting a budget that will continue to keep the pledge of cutting the deficit in half by five years, and secondly, addressing some of the unfunded liabilities inherent in the fiscal budget.
In terms of the current account deficit, the best way to deal with that is to, one, ensure that currencies around the world are market driven, not controlled by state, and secondly, at home, is to make America an attractive place for people to take risk, a place to invest. That's one of the reasons why I've started talking about legal reform early. One way to make sure America is the best place in the world to do business and the best place in the world to attract capital, therefore, is to reform our legal system.
I'm taking on three issues: asbestos reform, class action and medical liability reform. Today I'm going to be talking about education. We need an energy bill. I'm looking forward to working with the Congress to get an energy bill. We'll continue to be a free trade administration. So those are issues I'm looking forward to working with Congress on, as well. And I'm excited about it -- you can clearly see where I think the country needs to go. I told that to the people when I was running, and I'm looking forward to leading the Congress.
Why don't we start with some questions?
The Post: There was this report -- it was reported in the papers this morning -- from the National Intelligence Council. Always by our front-page stories. (Laughter.) Right there. And it essentially says that Iraq has become a terrorist breeding ground, it's created terrorists who are going to take those new terrorist talents and go elsewhere after the war. Is this at all contradicting your assertion that you're always making America safer from terrorists?
THE PRESIDENT: The report -- and I welcome these studies -- basically says America must stay on the offense. And there are two ways to stay on the offense. One, use our intelligence services, as well as the intelligence services of friends and allies, to find people and bring them to justice before they hurt us, and secondly, to spread freedom. And it's a -- I think the report was somewhat speculative; this could happen. And I agree. If we're not diligent and firm, there will be pockets of -- parts of the world that become pockets for terrorists to find safe haven and to train. And we have a duty to disrupt that. I firmly believe that a free Iraq will be a major defeat for the Salafist movement and the extremist movement, those who want to use terror as a weapon to impose their will on millions of people throughout the world.
The Post: Secretary Powell said this week that American troops will begin leaving Iraq this year. Is that true?
THE PRESIDENT: The way I would put it is, American troops will be leaving as quickly as possible, but they won't be leaving until we have completed our mission. And part of the mission is to train Iraqis so they can fight the terrorists. And the sooner the Iraqis are prepared -- better prepared, better equipped to fight -- the sooner our troops will start coming home.
The Post: Can you be sure that by the end of your second term, that there will be a significant reduction?
THE PRESIDENT: I'm still on the, as quick as possible.
The Post: Do you disagree with Colin Powell's assessment, then, that he thinks it can be done?
THE PRESIDENT: My assessment is, is that we will -- one of the reasons why the military sent an assessment team to Iraq recently was to assess our training mission, because success in Iraq will depend upon the Iraqis defeating the enemy. And so we're constantly assessing to see whether -- where we can improve training, how we can do things better, and what the Iraqis think they need, in order to do their job.
And so the troops have been helping to provide as much security as possible for the elections. The political process is going on. And at the same time, doing their job and training these Iraqis. So we're constantly assessing, and that's what this is. The panel will report back to determine how best to train the Iraqis. My answer to your question is, as soon as possible, based upon fulfilling the mission.
The elections -- I am pleased that the elections are going forward. I recognize that there are a group of terrorists trying to stop the election process. I have been amazed by the spirit of the Iraqi people. There's a big front-page story; I'm sure you read that. Please don't tell me you haven't.
The Post: I read them all.
THE PRESIDENT: Please don't tell me you haven't.
The Post: Read them all.
THE PRESIDENT: But there is a spirit there that I appreciate. And I talked to President Yawar today. I talked to Prime Minister Allawi earlier in the week. And they recognize that the terrorists are mean and tough, but they also are focused and determined that these elections go forward. And it is that determination which impresses me.
So the political process is unfolding. And it is a process. In other words, this is the election of an assembly, which will choose leadership. And out of that leadership will, obviously, become -- we'll work to develop -- further refine the security strategy, as well as watch a process unfold that will write a constitution. And it's important for people to understand that. Unlike our system, that has "the election," and it defines what America -- how America will be governed for four years, this is a process.
The Post: In Iraq, there's been a steady stream of surprises. We weren't welcomed as liberators, as Vice President Cheney had talked about. We haven't found the weapons of mass destruction as predicted. The postwar process hasn't gone as well as some had hoped. Why hasn't anyone been held accountable, either through firings or demotions, for what some people see as mistakes or misjudgments?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, we had an accountability moment, and that's called the 2004 election. And the American people listened to different assessments made about what was taking place in Iraq, and they looked at the two candidates, and chose me, for which I'm grateful.
Listen, in times of war, things don't go exactly as planned. Some were saying there was no way that Saddam Hussein would be toppled as quickly as we toppled him. Some were saying there would be mass refugee flows and starvation, which didn't happen. My only point is, is that, on a complicated matter such as removing a dictator from power and trying to help achieve democracy, sometimes the unexpected will happen, both good and bad.
And the point is, there has to be a flexible strategy that will enable our commanders on the ground and our diplomats to be able to adjust strategy to meet the needs on the ground, all aiming at an eventual goal, which is a free and democratic Iraq, not in our image, in their image, according to their customs. See, we haven't been -- we've been there -- sovereignty was transferred in June of 2004. So this has been a sovereign nation in its new form for less than a year. I'm optimistic about it, and so are a lot of other people who were there in Iraq --optimistic about that, being optimistic about the emergence of a free government.
I'm also mindful that it takes a while for democracy to take hold. Witness our own history. We weren't -- we certainly were not the perfect democracy and are yet the perfect democracy. Ours is a constitution that said every man -- a system that said every man was equal, but in fact, every man wasn't equal for a long period of time in our history. The Articles of Confederation were a bumpy period of time. And my only point is, is that I am realistic about how quickly a society that has been dominated by a tyrant can become a democracy. And therefore, I am more patient than some, but also mindful that we've got to get the Iraqis up and running as quickly as possible, so they can defeat these terrorists.
The Post: There [are] signs of a manpower squeeze in the regular Army. The National Guard and Reserves have been pressed to their limit. Do you plan to ask Congress to authorize additional National Guard or regular Army units?