December 16, 1997
President Clinton answered questions from White House and State Department reporters for almost an hour and a half this afternoon. Here are some excerpts.
SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: Mr. President, some lawmakers are talking about giving Americans a tax cut next year, but there's a separate issue of fundamental tax reform; that is, changing the tax code to a flat tax or national sales tax or a greatly simplified progressive tax. Do you believe that the time has come to seriously consider fundamental tax reform?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: First of all, on the whole tax cut front, there has been some talk about that by some lawmakers who say that now we have a surplus and, therefore, we should spend it in part at least with a tax cut. And by that they mean one of two things. They mean we have a projected surplus at the end of this budget period, or they mean that the deficit is lower now than it was projected to be last August when I signed the balanced budget bill. But it's important that the American people understand we don't have a surplus yet. We have a deficit that's over 90 percent smaller than it was when I took office.
It was at $290 billion, and now it's at $23 billion. That is not a surplus. This economy is the strongest it's been in a generation because of the discipline that we've been able to bring to the task of bringing the deficit down and getting our house in order. We should not lightly abandon that discipline. Now, the second question: Should the tax code be simplified and should the--should the system work better for ordinary Americans? On an elemental level, of course, it should. I would not rule out a further substantial action to simplify the tax code. But I will evaluate any proposal, including any one that our people might be working on by the following criteria: First of all, is it fiscally responsible? Secondly, is it fair to all Americans? That is, we don't want to shift the burden to middle class taxpayers to lower income taxes on upper income people. We did that for 12 years, and it didn't work out very well.
And we have reversed that, and we don't want to start that all over again. Thirdly, will it be good for the economy, and fourthly, will it actually lead to a simpler tax system? Now, within those parameters, any proposals that meet those criteria I think I am duty bound to consider supporting.
BILL NEIKIRK, Chicago Tribune: Mr. President, the polls show that people support affirmative action, but not when it's known as racial preference. How do you get around this clash of language? And what do you think about the term "racial preference?" Is it a proper one?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, I think people support affirmative action when you describe it, and then if you call it racial preference, they don't support it, because it--the way--the words itself seem to inevitably mean that someone will get something because of his or her race for which he or she is not really qualified. Now, the problem, if you back off from it, is that we Americans believe in three things: We believe that the best qualified people ought to get what they're best qualified for; we believe everybody ought to have a chance; and we believe people that have had a hard time ought to have a hand up. If you took a survey, I believe over 80 percent of the people would say that. The problem is when you try to translate those three principles, if you have a label that can be affixed to your efforts that is consistent with those principles, people say, yes, do it. If the label seems to be contradictory to those, they say, no, don't do it. And what really matters is what are you doing, and is it working? I think people in both parties of good faith, what they want is a society where everybody who needs it gets a hand up, everybody's got a fair chance, but where unfair criteria don't deprive the deserving at the expense of the--to the benefit of the undeserving. We can get there if we'll move beyond the slogans to keep refining these programs and maybe even extending our efforts to help more people in their earlier years and help more people in these disadvantaged communities. That's what our whole empowerment concept is all about.
PETER MAER, NBC/Mutal Radio: Mr. President, I'd like to go to the question on Bosnia. You're obviously laying the groundwork for an extended stay for U.S. troops there. What kind of a mandate do you envision for that mission, and what type of military and financial responsibility do you hope the European allies will agree to in this follow-on effort?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, of course, that is all part of our discussions now, both with our allies and with members of Congress, and I don't want to truncate the discussions. What I want to do is to see that the peace process continues. I think one of the things that all of our military people agree on is that we must do more to beef up the civilian police there, and that there must be a distinction between what we expect our military leaders to do, and what we expect the civilian police to do, and the mission must be--if there is to be a mission after the S-FOR mission expires, it also must have clear objective components with some way of knowing whether the mission has been achieved or not. In other words, I still don't believe that there should be anybody interested in some kind of permanent stationing of global military presence all over Bosnia, but I do think that these are all elements that have to be discussed, and, as I said, I hope to be able to tell you more about this before I leave on my trip in a few days. Mara.
MARA LIASSON, National Public Radio: You said this week you were looking forward to an honest dialogue with Iran. Could you tell us how and when that dialogue might begin?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: We are--all of us--discussing about how to proceed now. No decision has been made. But I have always said from the beginning that I thought it was tragic that the United States was separated from the people of Iran. It's a country with a great history that at various times has been quite close to the United States. We have had the privilege of educating a number of people from Iran over several decades. Indeed, some people in the present government were able to get some of their education in the United States, and Americans have been greatly enriched by Iranian, by Persian culture from the beginning of our country. We have three issues that we think have to be discussed in the context of any comprehensive discussion. The first relates to Iranian support of terrorist activities with which we strongly disagree. The second relates to Iranian opposition to the peace process in the Middle East with which we disagree. And the third relates to policies involving the development of weapons of mass destruction. I think we have to be able to discuss those things in order to have an honest dialogue, just like we have an honest dialogue with China now. We don't have to agree on everything, but you have--people have to be able to have an honest discussion even when they disagree.
DAVID BLOOM, NBC News: Mr. President, how long are you willing to tolerate Saddam Hussein's continued defiance of the United States and of the United Nations?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, Saddam Hussein has been in defiance of the United Nations since the end of the Gulf War. That's why we have a system of sanctions on him. And I am willing to maintain the sanctions as long as he does not comply with the resolutions. If you're asking me, are there other options that I might consider taking under certain circumstances, I wouldn't rule out anything. I never have, and I won't. But I think it's important that you remember since the end of the Gulf, the world community has known that he was interested in not only rebuilding his conventional military authority but that he was interested in weapons of mass destruction and a set of sanctions that was imposed on him. There are those that would like to lift the sanctions. I am not among them. I am not in favor of lifting sanctions until he complies. Furthermore, if there is further obstruction from the mission, the United Nations mission in doing its job, we have to consider other options.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: On a lighter note the President also announced the name of his new chocolate Labrador puppy. It's Buddy, in honor of a favorite uncle who died earlier this year.