Barack Obama's president-elect press conference - 19 December 2008

President-elect press conference (12/19/08)
by Barack Obama

Delivered on 19 December 2008.

Good afternoon. Before we begin, I'd like to say a few words about the necessary steps taken today to help avoid a collapse of our auto industry.

It would have had devastating consequences for our economy and our workers. With the short-term assistance provided by this package, the auto companies must bring all their stakeholders together, including labor, dealers, creditors and suppliers, to make the hard choices necessary to achieve long-term viability. The auto companies must not squander this chance to reform bad management practices, and begin the long-term restructuring that is absolutely necessary to save this critical industry and the millions of American jobs that depend on it, while also creating the fuel-efficient cars of tomorrow.

Whenever I've been asked how I measure the strength of the American economy, my answer is simple: jobs and wages. I know we will be headed in the right direction again when we are creating jobs instead of losing them, and when Americans are gaining ground in terms of their incomes instead of treading water or falling behind.

In recent weeks, I've announced members of my economic team who will help us make progress in these areas. Today, I'm announcing several other appointees who will play an integral role in our efforts to turn our economy around: Congresswoman Hilda Solis as secretary of Labor, former Congressman Ray LaHood as secretary of Transportation, Karen Mills as administrator of the Small Business Administration, and Mayor Ron Kirk as United States Trade Representative. Together with the appointees I've already announced, these leaders will help craft a 21st-century economic recovery plan with the goal of creating two-and- a-half million new jobs and strengthening our economy for the future.

If jobs and incomes are our yardstick, then the success of the American worker is key to the success of the American economy. For the past eight years, the Department of Labor has not lived up to its role either as an advocate for hardworking families or as an arbiter of fairness in relations between labor and management.

That will change when Hilda Solis is secretary of Labor. Under her leadership, I am confident that the Department of Labor will once again stand up for working families. I'm confident about that because Hilda has always been an advocate for everyday people. When she received an award several years ago, she said, "fighting for what is just is not always popular, but it is necessary," and that's exactly what she's done throughout her career, blazing new trails every step of the way.

Whether it's creating green jobs that pay well and can't be outsourced, or expanding access to affordable health care, or raising the minimum wage in California, Hilda has been a champion of our middle class. And I know that Hilda will show the same kind of leadership and vision as secretary of Labor that she's showed in California and on the Education and Labor Committee by protecting workers' rights, from organizing to collective bargaining, from keeping our workplaces safe to making our unions strong.

Standing up for our workers means putting them back to work and fueling economic growth. Our economy boomed in the 20th century when President Eisenhower remade the American landscape by building the interstate highway system. Now we need to remake our transportation system for the 21st century. Doing so will not only help meet our energy challenges by building more efficient cars, buses and subways or making Americans safer by rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, it will create millions of new jobs in the process.

Few understand our infrastructure challenge better than the outstanding public servant that I'm asking to lead the Department of Transportation, Ray LaHood. As congressman from Illinois, Ray served six years on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, leading efforts to modernize our aviation system by renewing our aging airports and ensuring that air traffic controllers were using cutting- edge technology.

Throughout his career, Ray has fought to improve mass transit and invest in our highways. But he has not only helped rebuild our landscape, he's helped beautify it by creating opportunities for bikers and runners to enjoy our great outdoors.

When I began this appointment process, I said I was committed to finding the best person for the job, regardless of party. Ray's appointment reflects that bipartisan spirit, a spirit we need to reclaim in this country to make progress for the American people and a spirit that Ray has embodied in all of his years in public service.

To strengthen our economy, we must also strengthen the small businesses that are its backbone. I can think of no one better to lead this effort as administrator of the Small Business Administration than Karen Mills. With Karen at the helm, America's small businesses will have a partner in Washington, helping them create jobs and spur growth in communities across this country.

A venture capitalist who invests in small businesses, Karen understands the challenges faced by both small businesses' owners and the workers they employ. With a background in the private sector and experience helping Maine's governor promote growth across the state, I am confident that Karen will lead an SBA that will not only help small business owners realize their dreams, but help our nation rebuild our economy.

We also know that the success of American businesses, small and large, depend on their ability to sell their products across the globe. That's why we must engage in strong, robust trade and open doors for American products. In our global economy, we must compete and win if we are going to strengthen our middle class and forge bonds with other nations that can contribute to peace and stability around the world. But I also believe that any trade agreement we sign must be written not just with the interests of big corporations in mind, but with the interests of our whole nation and our workers at heart.

Ron Kirk understands this better than just about anybody. As mayor of Dallas, Ron helped steer one of the world's largest economies. He's seen the promise of trade, but also its pitfalls. And he knows there is nothing inconsistent about standing up for free trade and standing up for American workers.

During his tenure as mayor, Ron brought different groups together to create jobs, invest in the community, and spur economic growth. As a leader, negotiator, and principled proponent of trade, Ron will help make sure that any agreement I sign as president protects the right of all workers, promotes the interests of all Americans, strengthens American businesses and preserves the planet we all share.

With these outstanding appointees, I have filled out our economic team and done so at an earlier point than any president in history, because we face challenges unlike any we have faced in generations.

Daunting as the challenges we are inheriting may be, I'm convinced that our team and the American people are prepared to meet them. It will take longer than any of us would like -- years, not months. It will get worse before it gets better. But it will get better if we are willing to act boldly and swiftly, and that is what we will do when I am president of the United States.

With that, I would like to first bring up to the podium Hilda Solis.

Solis: Thank you.

I'm humbled and honored to be nominated by President-elect Barack Obama to serve as secretary of Labor. As a daughter of immigrants raised in La Puente in the San Gabriel Valley, near the beloved East Los Angeles, I learned at a very young age the value of hard work, public service and commitment to family. That's why I share President-elect Obama's belief in an America where if you work hard, anything is possible -- an America that values, rewards and -- hard work; an America where we can both be standing on this stage together here today.

But for many Americans, that America is slipping further and further away. As secretary of Labor, I'll work to strengthen our unions and support every American in our nation's diverse workforce.

I look forward to working with President-elect Obama to reinvest in workforce training, build effective pipelines to provide at-risk youth and underserved communities with sustainable skills, and support high-growth industries by training the workers that they need. This includes promoting green-collar jobs. These are jobs that will provide economic security for all working families while securing our energy supply and combatting climate change.

We must also enforce federal labor laws and strengthen regulations to protect our nation's workers, such as wage and hour laws, and rules regarding overtime pay and pay discrimination. Through these and other efforts, we can help strengthen one of America's greatest assets, its labor force.

I want to take this opportunity to thank my family, especially my parents, Raul and Juana Solis, and my husband and my sisters and brothers for all their support over the years. They've always believed in me and have been a source of my strength, and teachers of mine in terms of understanding commitment to justice, equality and public service.

To my extended family, those I have worked alongside in California and in Washington, thank you for your commitment to public service, justice, and for your loyalty.

Quisiera tomar esta oportunidad para agradecerle al Presidente- electo Barack Obama por haberme nominado como secretaria del Departamente del Trabajo de los Estados Unidos. Como hija de migrantes, estoy muy honorada por esta oportunidad. Tambien quisiera agradecerle a mi esposo, a mis padres, Raul y Juana Solis, y a mi familia por todo su apoyo. [1]

I thank President-elect Obama, and I look forward to serving as a member of his team.

I'd like to now introduce a colleague of mine, Congressman Ray LaHood. I'm proud to have the opportunity to continue to serve with Congressman LaHood. As a grandson of an immigrant and the son of a restaurant manager, he, too, demonstrated what can be accomplished with hard work. His experience, bipartisan approach to issues and fair-handed demeanor will be important assets as we work together.

LaHood: Thank you.

Good morning, or good afternoon.

I'd like to thank President-elect Obama for his confidence in me and his commitment to working across party lines for our country. President-elect Obama and I share the same philosophy on infrastructure. His agenda for the Department of Transportation is my agenda for the Department of Transportation.

I have often said that once the election is over we must put aside our partisan labels and work together for the good of the American people. That is exactly the approach President-elect Obama will take as president and is exactly the approach I will take as secretary of Transportation.

We have a task before us to rebuild America. As a nation, we need to continue to be the world leader in infrastructure development. Amtrak, mass transit, light rail, air travel and our roads and bridges all play a vital role in our economy and our well-being as a nation. We cannot stand by while our infrastructure ages and crumbles. We must pursue solid policies that allow our states and communities to address their transportation needs. We have a tremendous opportunity before us to rebuild our infrastructure and reinvigorate our economy, and I look forward to the challenge.

A hallmark of my career in Congress has been my work with our local and state leaders as we have improved the infrastructure of Illinois. I've served on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee as we reauthorized the Federal Highway Bill. I understand firsthand what good infrastructure and transportation means to communities and understand it is the local folks who know best their transportation needs. I will bring that same approach to the Department of Transportation.

I'd like to thank my family for the continued love and support they've shown me as I pursued my public-service career. Kathy, my wife, and I have stood side by side for 41-plus years. She has endured my 30 years of public service, and I am grateful for her support, and the support of my four children and seven grandchildren.

Again, thank you, Mr. President-elect, for your trust in me.

I look forward to working, with our friends on Capitol Hill, to advance good transportation legislation. And I plan to engage our governors, mayors, local officials, as we move forward. I'm ready to roll up my sleeves and move forward.

And now Mr. Ron Kirk.

Kirk: Well, I am honored and I am humbled to accept the post of U.S. trade representative for this administration. As the mayor of Dallas, I happened to live in one of the most dynamic cities in the world. But it was also in the crosshairs of regional trade and trade for this continent.

I've seen both its benefits and its cost. But like the president, I believe that trade can help us create jobs at home and encourage development abroad. And like President-elect Obama, I believe a values-driven trade agenda that stays true to our commitment, to America's workers and environmental sustainability, is not only consistent with a pro-trade agenda but it's also necessary for its success.

I too have to take this moment and thank my family, for their extraordinary love and support, particularly my wife Matrice and our two daughters, who are making a great sacrifice for me to be able to accept this tremendous honor to serve our country.

I look forward to working, with my colleagues in the administration, to further the message that America is open for business and to promote a progressive, pro-trade agenda.

And at this point, I'd like to welcome Karen Mills.

Mills: Thank you, Ron.

And thank you, Mr. President-elect, for your confidence and for this important assignment.

Small business is at the heart of the American economy. There are over 6 million small businesses in this country. And they create 70 percent of the new jobs every quarter. They could be small businesses on Main Street or new green-energy startups. But if these companies grow and prosper, jobs are created, and America stays competitive.

Building and growing a small business has been a defining tradition in America. Many of us are the children of immigrants, men and women who were able to start and grow their own businesses. This is a legacy I'm proud to be a part of and to promote for our future.

The Small Business Administration provides an opportunity for the federal government to serve as a partner with small business, to help these businesses access capital and counseling and provide aid in the times of natural disasters.

Small business will be an important focus of this administration, as we work our way through these difficult economic times and as we grow the economy in the future.

America's spirit of entrepreneurship is one of our greatest assets, as we compete in this global economy. I'm very pleased to be joining the Obama administration in a role that fosters this entrepreneurial spirit.

I want to thank my husband Barry and our three sons for all their support, as well as the businesspeople of Maine who have inspired me to work in this important area. Thank you.

Obama: Okay, let's start with Karen Bond.

Bond Thank you, Mr. President-elect. The Bush administration says that you could change the terms of the automakers' loan if you wanted to. Do you have any plans to do that? The United Auto Workers is upset over some of the provisions that apply to workers. And they also say they're open to suggestions on an auto czar. Do you think an auto czar is needed? And are you likely to offer suggestions?

Obama: Well, first of all, I think that we should note the progress that was made from where this began and where it is now. We started off with the automakers coming before Congress asking for a blank check, and I like many said that's not going to fly; we're going to have to make sure that we've got a mechanism to force the kind of restructuring that is necessary so that we have a sustainable auto industry, an auto industry that's making the cars of the future, one that will provide security for the workers who are building these automobiles. And we have in baby steps, inch by inch, moved in that direction.

Since the White House just made the announcement this morning, I have not have an opportunity, nor has my economic team, to look at all the details of the plan. So I wouldn't want to comment about what changes I would want to make before I've even seen what's already on the table.

I do want to emphasize to the big three automakers and their executives that the Americans -- people's patience is running out, and that they should seize on this opportunity over the next several weeks and months to come up with a plan that is sustainable. And that means that they're going to have to make some hard choices.

Now, my top priority in this administration is going to be to create 2.5 million new jobs, and I want some of those jobs to be in the auto industry. And so my intention is to have my economic team work with not only auto management, but also the UAW, and -- and talk to workers and find out, what can we do in order to assure that their jobs are preserved, but not just for the next few months, that they're preserved for years to come and that a next generation of autoworkers are going to be put in place.

So there are going to be some painful steps that have to be taken. I just want to make sure that when we see a -- a final restructuring package, that it's not just workers who are bearing the brunt of that restructure; that they're not the ones who are taking all the hits and others, who in the past have enjoyed a lot more of the benefits of the auto industry, somehow aren't being affected. I think all shareholders are going to have to be -- play a part in this process.

Univision, Erika Maldonado.

Maldonado: Mr. President-elect --

Obama: How are you?

Maldonado: Fine, thank you very much.

My question is for both of you -- Hilda Solis and you. And it is true, unemployment is on everybody's mind, and with the recession that we're in we're losing jobs every day, not only the manufacturing part of the industry, but also they're going overseas. How are you going to manage to actually reverse a trend, keep the jobs in the United States and also pay good salaries and working with the unions and create more jobs?

Obama: Well, one of my first steps is to put Hilda Solis at the secretary of Labor, because she's going to do a great job in job promotion and she knows that not only do we want to create jobs but we also are going to have to train our workers to be prepared for these jobs of the future.

Our economic recovery plan, for example, envisions transforming our energy economy. But if we're going to build a smart grid, for example, which allows us to save energy, allows businesses to save energy, makes this economy more fuel -- more energy-efficient, we have a shortage right now of workers who could do all the work. And we're going to have to create that pipeline through the secretary of Labor's office in order to make sure that those workers are in place to achieve our long-term goals.

So the way that we're going to keep jobs here in the United States is to rebuild America, rebuild our infrastructure. It's going to be to get our financial system working again, which means that we have to have a very strong regulatory structure that prevents the kinds of systemic crisis that we've seen over the last several months. It means that we're going to have to educate our children effectively and train them for the high-value, high-wage jobs of the future.

It means that we are going to have to have the kind of trade relationships that Ron is going to be responsible for to assure that -- that there's reciprocity in all of our trade agreements; that, you know, if we are trading with a country and they are sending their goods into the United States, we better be able to sell American goods in their country as well; that on both sides of the border we end up having labor and environmental agreements that are enforceable, so we don't have a race to the bottom, but instead the standards of living of all workers are raised.

Those are all going to be critical approaches and it's not going to happen overnight. You know, we've seen this cycle of jobs leaving for too long. It's going to take some time for us to reverse it. But I'm confident that with the leadership of the kind of people behind me today that we're going to be able to accomplish it. Okay?

I'm sure Hilda will be willing to give you a sidebar interview at some point. Okay?

[staffer]: Last question.

Obama: Savannah Guthrie. Hi.

Guthrie: Hi. I messed that up last time, so -- you haven't said how much your economic recovery package will cost, but the estimates we get from the Hill keep inching higher and higher and, some say, could reach up to $1 trillion.

Obama: Yeah.

Guthrie: First of all, is that in the ballpark, even if you don't want to nail yourself to a certain figure right now? And second of all, what would you say to Americans who are really nervous about that kind of spending? Notwithstanding the consensus you talk about among economists it's got to be big --

Obama: Yeah.

Guthrie: -- is there any cap, is there any ceiling as to how much you will spend? Thank you.

Obama: Well, first of all, I'm concerned about the numbers that are being talked about. I -- you know, we're not intending to spend money lightly. You know, the tax burden on Americans are already high. We are going to be inheriting a deficit that is probably above a trillion dollars. And so look, I'm a taxpayer like everybody else, and I don't want to see money wasted.

What has been striking in the conversations that we have had with economists from the left and the right over the past several months is how the economic forecasts have deteriorated, and the conclusion has been that with credit freezing up, with businesses laying off workers, with a continued weakness in the housing market and escalating foreclosures, that unless you have a bold approach, you could see the economy continuing to decline at a pretty rapid clip. That is not acceptable to me, and I don't think it's acceptable to the American people.

So we don't -- this is not an optimal situation, but what we're going to have to do is make the best decisions that we can with the hand that we're dealt. And what I think that is going to mean, although we haven't finalized our actual plan, is that we focus single-mindedly on job creation, increasing demand, getting the economy back on track, fixing our financial markets. That is going to cost a significant amount of money on the front end.

What we want to do is make sure that in spending that money to help jump-start the economy and put 2.5 million people back to work, that we are also looking at the long term. And that's where Ray LaHood, myself and others on the economic team are going to be changing how business is done in Washington. Every dollar that we spend, we want it spent on projects that are there not because of politics but because they're good for the American people. You know, if we're building a road, it better not be a "road to nowhere." If we are building a bridge, it better be because an engineer identified a bridge that has a structural weakness and that has to be dealt with. If we are going to embark on this enormous project of transforming our energy economy, then we want to make certain that -- that we are pairing up new technologies with our energy needs and that, you know, we have had scientists and engineers look over all these projects before they actually hit the ground.

That's going to be the care with which we embark on this necessary process.

Now, there's one last point that I've made in previous news conferences that I want to repeat. Once we get this economy back on track -- and I am confident that we're going to do it -- I'm confident that we're going to put people back to work, and I'm confident that businesses are going to start growing again. It's going to take some time, but we can get this done. Once we have an economic recovery and the economy's growing again, then we're going to be confronted with this enormous deficit, not just because of the economic recovery package but because even if we didn't have an economic recovery package right now we'd be in a position of unsustainable deficits in future years. And that has to do with rising health care costs, that has to do with runaway spending, lack of discipline in Congress. And so part -- part and parcel of our overall economic plan is going to be a mechanism to get our mid-term and long-term budgets under control.

And I -- I want to be very clear, we are going to make some difficult choices on the budget. And I'm going to make sure, by the way, that some of those difficult choices are under my watch and not just somebody else's watch because historically, what's happened is a lot of times presidents say, "Well, we're going to -- we're projecting that we balance the budget -- oh, and by the way, it doesn't happen until two presidents from now. And so nothing ever changes." "We're going to reform how spending takes place, but it doesn't start until I've left office." But we're going to start it now, and I expect to -- to -- you know, that we're going to have some fights in Washington around that issue.

But every economist that I've spoken to insists that the most important thing we can do even for our budget and even for our deficit is to get our economy back on track because if the economy keeps on weakening, that means tax revenues are down, that means more people are out of work, which means that they are seeking unemployment insurance, they are relying on the government for health care or helping look after their children. And so you have increased spending by government, decreased revenues because the economy's shrinking, that is going to grow the deficit more than anything. And if we do this right -- and it's not easy -- then what we can do is grow the economy, get it back on track over the first couple of years, and then we'll be in a position to make some tough choices, but we will have also laid the groundwork for long-term economic growth by transforming our energy economy, starting to make a downpayment in terms of making the health care system more efficient, investing in our young people through the schools. That's going to be the approach that we take.


[reporter]: [off-mic]

Obama: I'm not going to give you a number because we're still making these evaluations. But you are exactly right that what we've seen, in terms of the evaluation of economists, from across the political spectrum, is that we're going to have to be bold when it comes to our economic recovery package.

Okay. Thank you, everybody.


  1. "I want to take this opportunity to thank President-elect Barack Obama for accepting my nomination for Secretary of Labor of the United States. As a child of migrants, I am very honored for this opportunity. And I want to thank my husband, my parents – Raula nd Juana Solis – and my family for all of your support."

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