President Bush gave a news conference Wednesday morning at the White House where he discussed Social Security and the situation in Iraq. Here is a transcript of the session with reporters.
BUSH: Thank you for giving me a chance to come by and say hello.
President Bush acknowledged to reporters Wednesday that Social Security is "a difficult issue" that may require a "tough vote."
I'm preparing for my trip out of town for Easter week, and thought I'd share some thoughts with you and answer some questions.
I am looking forward to continuing my dialogue with the people on Social Security. It's important for the American people to understand that I believe the Social Security system has worked well, that Franklin Roosevelt did a positive thing when he created the Social Security system, but that I am deeply concerned about the Social Security system for younger Americans.
BUSH: And I believe we're making progress on convincing the American people of two things: one, nothing will change for seniors -- those who've retired or near retirement; and secondly, that we must work together to make sure the system works for a younger generation of Americans.
I think I told you all earlier that one of my missions in the Social Security debate was to set that issue before the people so that people fully understand why I was addressing it. That was why.
I fully understand some in Washington are saying, Why would the president bring this up? It's a difficult issue; may cause us to have to make a tough vote.
I'm making that case to the people and will continue to do so, in Florida on Friday and then we'll head out west from Crawford and then back to Crawford for my meetings with Prime Minister Martin and President Fox.
BUSH: I urge the members to go out, when they go home, to talk to their constituents, not only about the problem but about solutions.
I urge members to start talking about how we're going to permanently fix Social Security. Members, I hope, would not talk about a Band-Aid solution; I think it's important for them to talk about a permanent fix -- something that will last forever.
I think the voters will appreciate people who come up with constructive suggestions, not statements merely in opposition of some ideas.
And so this is part of what I wanted to share with you, is that I'm actually enjoying myself on these trips.
BUSH: I hope you're enjoying traveling with me.
I like to get out of Washington. I like to discuss big issues. I like to remind people that my job is to confront problems. And I'll continue to talk about Social Security for the next period of time.
Iraq had a meeting today of its transitional national assembly. It's a bright moment in what is a process toward writing of a constitution, the ratification of the constitution and elections. And I congratulate the Iraqis for their assembly. And we've always said this is a process and today was a step in that process. It's a hopeful moment I thought.
I'm looking forward to seeing you down there in Crawford, those of you lucky enough to be able to travel with me.
BUSH: I wish you all a happy Easter.
And I'd be glad to answer some questions.
QUESTION: Mr. President, the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq once had 38 countries contributing troops and now that number has fallen to 24, and yesterday Italy said it was going to start pulling out some forces in September.
How can you keep the coalition from crumbling and is it time to think about a timetable for pulling out some U.S. troops given that the Iraqi parliament was seated today and you're making progress in training some portions?
BUSH: Well, actually I called Silvio Berlusconi on another matter, which may or may not come up during this press conference. Actually, I'll give you a hint. I called him about the World Bank...
... and discussed my nominee.
BUSH: But he brought up the issue of Italian troops in Iraq. And I said, first of all, he wanted me to know that there was no change in his policy; that, in fact, any withdrawals would be done in consultation with allies and would be done depending upon the ability of Iraqis to defend themselves.
And I said, Are you sure I can say this to the press corps that will be wanting to know what took place in our conversation?
He said, Absolutely.
So I think what you're going to find is that countries will be willing -- anxious to get out when Iraqis have got the capacity to defend themselves. And that's the position of the United States: Our troops will come home when Iraq is capable of defending herself.
BUSH: And that's generally what I find to be the case when I've talked to other allies on this issue.
We're making progress. I've talked to General Casey quite frequently, and he keeps us abreast of the progress being made.
One of the things -- one of the issues, in terms of Iraqi troops being able to defend their country, is the ability to stand up chains of command. I think I've shared this with you before, and it's still an issue that they're working on.
There's officer training schools, plus the ability for a command to go from a civilian government to a military chain of command down to the lower ranks of troops.
And there's positive signs that have taken place in the development of the Iraqi security force, and there's still work to be done. Our allies understand that.
But -- I say anxious to come home, everybody -- nobody -- I mean, people want their troops home. But they don't want their troops home if it affects the mission. We've made a lot of progress.
BUSH: It's amazing how much progress has been made, thanks in large part to the courage of the Iraqi people.
And when I talk to people, most understand we need to complete the mission. And completing the mission means making sure the Iraqis can defend themselves.
QUESTION: So you don't think it's crumbling, the coalition?
BUSH: No, quite to the contrary. I think the coalition has been buoyed by the courage of the Iraqi people. I think they have been pleased and heartened by the fact that the Iraqis went to the polls and voted, and they're now putting together a government. And they see progress is being made.
I share that sense of enthusiasm about what's taking place in Iraq.
QUESTION: The Iranians have dismissed the European incentive as insignificant. Should more incentives be offered? How long do they have until you take their case to the Security Council?
BUSH: Well, first of all, I want to thank our European friends for taking the lead on this issue, telling the Iranians that they should permanently abandon any enrichment or reprocessing to make sure that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon.
Let me review the bidding on this, if I might; just, kind of, the history right quick.
Iran has concealed a nuclear program that became discovered not because of their compliance with the IAEA or NPT, but because a dissident group pointed it out to the world, which raised suspicions about the intentions of the program. You can understand why: It's a nontransparent regime run by a handful of people.
BUSH: So suspicions were raised. And as a result of those suspicions, we came together with friends and allies to seek a guarantee that they wouldn't use any nuclear program to make weapons.
A lot of people understand that if they did have a weapon, it would create incredible instability, it wouldn't be good for world peace.
And so the best way to do that -- and this is where we are in the talks -- was to say to the Iranians that they must permanently abandon enrichment and reprocessing. And the E.U.-3 meant it. And now we're waiting for an Iranian response.
QUESTION: And how do long do you wait? When do you go to the Security Council?
BUSH: The understanding is, we go to the Security Council if they reject the offer. And I hope they don't. I hope they realize the world is clear about making sure that they don't end up with a nuclear weapon.
QUESTION: Mr. President, you say you're making progress in the Social Security debate, yet private accounts is the centerpiece of that plan, something you first campaigned on five years ago and laid before the American people -- remains, according to every measure we have, poll after poll, unpopular with a majority of Americans.
So the question is, do you feel that this is a point in the debate where it's incumbent upon you, and nobody else, to lay out a plan to the American people for how you actually keep Social Security solvent for the long term?
BUSH: First of all, let me -- if I might correct you -- be so bold as to correct you -- I have not laid out a plan yet -- intentionally.
BUSH: I've laid out principles. I've talked about putting all options on the table because I fully understand the administration must work with the Congress to permanently solve Social Security.
And so one aspect of the debate is: Will we be willing to work together to permanently solve the issue?
Personal accounts do not solve the issue. Personal accounts will make sure that individual workers get a better deal with whatever emerges as a Social Security solution.
And the reason why is because a personal account would enable a worker to -- voluntarily, by the way; this is a voluntary program, you can choose to join or choose not to join. The government's not making you do that. It's your option. And you can decide whether or not you want to put some of your own money aside in a conservative mix in stocks and bonds to earn a better rate of return than that which you would earn -- your money would earn inside the Social Security system.
BUSH: And over time, that compounds, grows, and you end up with a nest egg you could call your own.
And so I think it's an interesting idea and one that people ought to discuss to make sure the system works better for an individual worker.
But it's very important for people to understand that the permanent solution will require Congress and the administration working together on a variety of different possibilities.
QUESTION: But, sir, but Democrats made it pretty clear that they're not interested in that; they want you to lay it out. And so, what I'm asking is...
BUSH: I'm sure they do.
First bill on the Hill always is dead on arrival.