Press Briefing by Chief of Staff Leon Panetta
The Roosevelt Room
5:12 P.M. EST
MR. PANETTA: Let me try to summarize the highlights from the speech tonight to try to give you a sense of what the President will be saying to the country. The primary --
Q: Are you on the record?
MR. PANETTA: I believe I am on the record. Whether I like it or not, I'm on the record.
Q: Are you embargoed?
Q: Let's just do it.
MR. PANETTA: The primary thrust of the speech is to present to the country really a new vision about where this country needs to go not only in these next two years, but into the next century. And it's really built around the President's view that we have to really establish a new social compact between citizens and government in which everyone has to recognize not only that citizens have rights, but that they have clear responsibilities, and that we've got to create a greater sense of community between citizens to each other as well as to the government if we're going to respond to the challenges that this country is facing now.
It stresses the themes that he's been talking to over these last few days and weeks about the concern that we really do need, if we're going to address problems facing this country at the end of the post-Cold War era, that we've got to create a greater sense of community between citizens as well as between citizens and their government, trying to solve problems. So this New Covenant really is the major theme that works its way through the speech and he then builds upon that with the idea of trying to establish a new government as well as a new economy and talks about the responsibilities in what is rapidly becoming a new world as well.
He talks about being keepers of the noble trust. That's a quote -- "keepers of a noble trust," and that we must be faithful to that trust; that we have to put aside partisanship, pettiness and anger, and rise to the occasion.
Q: Is that a quote, too?
MR. PANETTA: I call it a paraphrase. We're at the end of one century and "we have to join together to create another."
Q: When he says "we," is he referring to the Congress assembled, or the American people? MR. PANETTA: Both the Congress and the American people. The themes then that flow from that are, as I said, new
government, new economy, and then he talks about the world that we're in. Under new government, he uses this quote: "We cannot ask Americans to be better citizens if we are not better servants."
And then, speaking to the issues under new government, he calls for, obviously, smaller and more effective government to try to meet the challenges that are there, not to serve old interests. He makes a very strong pitch for fighting for political reforms, calling for an immediate end to lobbyists' gifts to Congress, asking them to voluntarily stop receiving gifts from lobbyists, and the passage of both lobbying and campaign finance reform.
On the campaign finance reform, he introduces not only, obviously, what has been in past bills about PAC limits, but ties the spending limits to free television for candidates as the approach on campaign reform.
Q: Is that any different from what he proposed last year?
MR. PANETTA: It is different on the free television instead of public financing.
He speaks to reinventing -- obviously, the work on reinventing government, the work that the Vice President has done in terms of cutting the bureaucracy by 272,000 positions, and the need to cut unnecessary spending as well as programs that have outlived their usefulness.
He talks about support for the line-item veto that -- refers to some examples that indicate wasteful spending and the need for the authority to use the line-item veto, and ask them to give them that, ask them to pass a responsible unfunded mandate bill because, as a governor, he is concerned about what states are facing with regards to resources in these areas.
He indicates a very strong effort to deal with illegal immigration. And the key element of that -- we've obviously emphasized enforcement in the past, and a continuing effort to increase our border patrols as well as our enforcement efforts. But he also supports the verification recommendation contained in the Jordan Commission. For those who are not familiar with that, it's essentially setting up what I would call almost a "Brady-type" system, a centralized system to ensure verification of those that are working.
Q: Is there a national ID card?
MR. PANETTA: It's not a -- no, it's not a national ID card. That's not part of their recommendation. What you would do is take Social Security or other forms of identification and you would be able to check those out through a centralized system. So he does endorse the verification, comes out tough against illegal immigration, but also makes clear that we ought not to take out our anger against legal immigrants to this country.
Q: An increase in border patrol funding?
MR. PANETTA: He indicates that we will be expanding a number the border patrol agents --
Q: Will that be paid for with a border crossing fee?
MR. PANETTA: It'll be proposed in the budget, and I think -- right now, I think it's funded under the cap, it's not funded separately by --
Q: would be in this central database? Is it just immigration status, or does it include other immigrants?
MR. PANETTA: They're working on pilot programs on this now at the Justice Department. But he will indicate, as I said, support for that system.
Q: How much will they beef up the border patrol?
MR. PANETTA: We've already doubled, I think, the number of border patrol agents, and we'll be adding to that; I can't give you a number.
Q: Where would this system be used?
MR. PANETTA: He will not speak to the number. Let me just tell you what he's going to say in his speech, and then you can ask me questions after I'm through. He will speak to the need to reduce regulations, but the need to do it in a common-sense way --for those regulations that provide for safety and health of citizens as well as for clean water and air.
He will also argue for continuing the fight against crime, and that he will hold the line on the Brady Bill and the ban on assault weapons.
He then goes into a new economy section.
Q: Does he use the word "veto"?
MR. PANETTA: I don't think so. (Laughter.)
Q: Well, does he specifically say hold the line, or does --
MR. PANETTA: There's not much question about where the President will stand on that issue. The message will be very clear as to what his position will be.
On the new economy, he talks about the Middle Class Bill of Rights, try to help working families in this country, to try to meet the costs of raising and educating their children, obtaining training for higher-paying jobs, buying a home, saving for their retirement. Those are the elements of the Middle Class Bill of Rights, as it's important not only to target tax cuts, but to pay for that and ensure that we don't increase the deficit.
He talks about protecting the discipline with regards to the deficit, the need to protect Social Security and Medicare and the investments that we protected in our proposals, argues that for those that do support balancing the budget, that they must be specific to the American people as to how those savings will be achieved.
On minimum wage, he talks about the fact that this is part of the effort to try to improve wages in this country, that it has been a bipartisan effort in the past, that it is at a 40-year low, and that he wants to work with them to find a way to make a living wage out of the minimum wage. He does not lay out a specific number in this speech.
On health care, he speaks to health care and says that we need to go step by step on the way to providing health security for every family in this country, and speaks to the need not to walk away from that issue.
With regards to the world and leadership abroad issue, he talks about the fact that after the Cold War, our security depends on our continuing world leadership for peace and freedom and for democracy. He talks about, at the top, on Mexico, the need to secure American jobs by passing the legislation to assist Mexico. He speaks about improving START II in order to eliminate 5,000 nuclear weapons, and he talks about the importance of protecting the readiness and the quality of life in our military, as well as promoting democracy throughout the world as we did in South Africa and Northern Ireland and Russia.
The speech, then, really spends -- concludes with a major focus on the elements of this New Covenant and what it really means in terms of responsibility by citizens. It makes a very strong pitch that responsibility was not just for government, but with families and with corporate leaders, and with those who had business -- and teachers, and that we are not going to be able to solve the problems that face us unless there is that kind of shared responsibility. He initiates a national campaign on teen pregnancy. He talks about welfare reform in that context, not only the need for, obviously, providing work instead of welfare, but parents assuming greater responsibility , but also not punishing children in the process of enacting welfare reform.
Q: Is Mrs. Clinton going to head this national campaign on teenage pregnancy?
MR. PANETTA: The new Surgeon General will probably head that up.
Q: What will it involve?
MR. PANETTA: The last part -- he deals with the crime issue again and the need to -- well, as I mentioned, crime, that he will make a strong pitch about not backing away.
National service is also mentioned in the section. And he makes a very strong pitch using AmeriCorps individuals that will be seated with the First Lady to emphasize the importance of what National Service is all about, and that it really does reflect what the New Covenant is about. We need to give something back to this country, and that he will not -- he will fight any cuts in that program.
He concludes by saying this is a great country with great people, but that our best days are still to come if we can unify and create the sense of community with this New Covenant for the future. Those are the basic elements, though, that he will cover.
Q: Could you explain a little more about the step-bystep health care approaches, please?
MR. PANETTA: He goes into some of the elements that ought to be included in legislation; recognizes that the problems of the last two years; talks about the need for portability; talks about the need for insurance reforms; talks about the need for long-term care; and talks about the need to try to protect children. Those are some of the elements that --
Q: All this year?
Q: Did he make a decision on the minimum wage to $5.00 and has just decided not to mention it, or has he not made a decision on what he would propose?
MR. PANETTA: I think he knows what he wants to do. But for tonight, he basically wants to reach out to the Congress and try to work with them to see if there's something they will agree to that can be done. And this is obviously one that he could basically posture on and send something up that goes nowhere. But his hope is that the Congress will recognize the need to do something with the minimum wage, as well.
Q: And how does he propose to stop teenage pregnancy, pray tell.
MR. PANETTA: A major campaign in this country --
Q: Like what? I mean, what do you mean "major campaign"?
MR. PANETTA: Well, I'll let him describe it tonight. But it's basically an effort that obviously, in large measure, has to also depend on people assuming greater responsibility in this area as well, but our ability to inform, provide greater information on this issue, greater awareness, and try to ensure that every step is taken to avoid what everyone recognizes as a growing problem in this country.
Q: Will he be advocating anything like abstinence or something specific?
Q: Will it be more of a public relations campaign?
MR. PANETTA: Yes, I mean, this is really the --
Q: In all seriousness, will he be advocating anything like the abstinence programs that some schools have been involved with in some states?
MR. PANETTA: Well, he's going to be advocating a lot of different steps and we'll speak to some of those steps tonight.
Q: Is this something with new money behind it?
MR. PANETTA: It really can't be. I mean, there will be, obviously, some targeted funds within the cap aimed at trying to assist at this effort.
Q: Would he try to enlist a private-public partnership in this?
MR. PANETTA: That's correct.
Q: What role will Mrs. Clinton be playing in that campaign? Is she going to have a role in that?
MR. PANETTA: I think she's been concerned about that issue and probably will continue to provide some support for that effort. But as I mentioned, I think it's primarily one that he would like to have the Surgeon General lead.
Q: Did she get any special role? Is she given any special area that she's going to focus on in the next year in this speech?
MR. PANETTA: Not in the speech.
Q: As you look at the speech, how would you characterize it on confrontation and conciliation?
MR. PANETTA: With Congress?
Q: With Congress, yes. (Laughter.)
MR. PANETTA: Well, I think that the President basically makes clear that he wants to work with the Congress where possible, and that there are some areas where there are some common interests in terms of trying to deal with issues like line item veto, unfunded man dates and some of the reforms that Congress has embarked upon.
But he's not going to allow Congress to take us backwards on some of the major initiatives that have been put in place over the last two years; that we've made a great deal of progress; that he's proud of what progress has been made in these areas; that people cast some tough votes; and that he is going to ensure that we are not going to move backwards with regards to those issues, whether it's crime, whether it's education, whether it's, as I said, the Brady Bill or assault weapons or the deficit. We're not going to let the country move backwards. If we're prepared to move forwards, he will work with the Congress in that effort.
Q: So we're going to see a Democrat tonight who is not -- a President who is not going to be able to say $5.00-an-hour minimum wage? Is that what the Democratic base is going to see tonight?
MR. PANETTA: I think what they're going to see tonight is a President who's committed to acting on the minimum wage, to taking action on it; but wanting to do it in a way that just isn't posturing with the Congress.
I mean, it's easy to take a step and just say, you know, I want to take this amount plus -- I mean, in the past there were proposals to basically increase it and then add indexing to it. And we all knew that it had no place to go. What he feels is that if people recognize that we do have a 40-year low, that there will be an effort to try to find a way to get it done. That's what he's interested in doing. And that's what he's trying to reach out to the leadership to see whether that's possible. If it's not possible, he will move forward with his proposal.
Q: Well, in the speech do you plan to announce something?
Q: You said he was going to try to give a living wage that would work. But if he does that, it might be even higher than $5.00.
MR. PANETTA: Well, that's -- I mean, we're going to -- and in this Congress, I doubt whether that will be a problem.
Q: In working with the leadership, are you going to propose a number at some point?
MR. PANETTA: We will if we can't arrive at an agreement with the leadership.
Q: But you have no public plans for any kind of an announcement on the minimum wage or a minimum wage program, to go forward with that in the speech?
MR. PANETTA: The President has his views about what should be done. And I think he wants to at least have the opportunity to sit down with the people on the Hill to see whether they will support it. If they don't, we'll move our own proposal.
Q: Is the teen pregnancy part of the welfare reform, the teen pregnancy campaign a part of the welfare reform?
MR. PANETTA: It does relate to that issue. But I think it's going to be a separate campaign outside the welfare reform.
Q: Is that in the speech? And has he been working in the house all day?
MR. PANETTA: He's been working in the house in his study on his speech. The speech is really a product of the President. He provided back-up information when he's asked for it, but he's basically sat there yesterday as well as today drafting his speech and we're working on the final elements now.
Q: Is he finished?
MR. PANETTA: Pretty much.
Q: What's he aiming for lengthwise?
Q: immigration? This will give information on all possible employees, what their immigration status is? So if someone wants to hire someone, will they have to check with it?
MR. PANETTA: Well, now, obviously, people show usually a Social Security card and they try to run some checks on that. But it's done in a pretty haphazard basis. The concern of the Jordan Commission is that they're ought to be at least a better way to verify the identification that's presented.
There are some pilot projects going on in the Justice Department to try to test this out on a regional basis, but I think the Jordan Commission's basic recommendation is we have to do a better job at trying to expedite verification. That is a problem, and the President is going to address that.
Q: On the minimum wage -- the critics of the minimum wage hike are going to say, this is going to lead to more illegal immigration, because it will just make it more appealing for employers to hire people under the table. Are there any new penalties you're talking in the speech for employers? Are you talking about adding enforcement officers to try to crack down --
MR. PANETTA: On the immigration issue? Yes, the President will speak to not only greater enforcement but greater enforcement against those employers who hire.
Q: What does that mean, greater enforcement?
MR. PANETTA: Well, there's going to be -- I mean, there's going to be funds aimed at greater enforcement in that area. Right now, frankly, he feels that not enough is being done to go after the employers themselves that are hiring illegals.
Q: How much emphasis is he going to give to this Mexican aid package, which is hanging by a thread?
MR. PANETTA: Pardon me?
Q: I mean, is he going to try to really explain to the country why the Mexican aid package is necessary, the loan guarantee, or is this something --
MR PANETTA: The President wants to make a strong statement on that because obviously the Congress is working on that now. We've got the leadership working on it. But the President feels that action has to be taken on that soon. They've been working at it, but we want to try to get legislation and a vote on that issue hopefully this week. So the President is going to draw some strong lines with regard to the need for --
Q: On the need for responsibility, what type of responsibility is he going to ask families and corporations to take on?
MR. PANETTA: With regards to the --
Q: Well, you said that families and corporations ought to be more responsible. What does that mean?
MR. PANETTA: The President is going to speak to the issue of obviously families doing more in terms of their children, their workplace, employers looking at providing decent wages to their employees, their responsibilities to do that, the need for all citizens to be able to do the kind of community and citizen relationship that this country used to be all about. I mean, the town hall meeting, the kind of exchanges that used to be done between community groups, trying to work on issues.
He's concerned -- and he's spoken to this, he spoke to this at the DNC -- the concern about people growing increasingly isolated from their fellow citizens in an information age and the need for people to relate more to each other, to try to reach out to reach other. It's one thing to try to slash and tear away at government, but you can't do that and create a vacuum. There have got to be people who are willing to work together to try to develop that sense of community that makes our democracy what it is. We've lost that, and the President wants to try to see if we can't recreate that sense of community as we go into this next century.
Q: Does the President realize that on the border patrol with this Mexican situation like it is now, that the number of illegal aliens will just soar very high and that there's a great need to bone up the border patrol immediately?
MR. PANETTA: Yes.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END5:35 P.M. EST
William J. Clinton, Press Briefing by Chief of Staff Leon Panetta Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/269912