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President-elect Bush Nominates Paul O'Neill as Treasury Secretary

Aired December 20, 2000 - 12:00 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: President-elect George W. Bush is about to hold a news conference. It is expected to begin momentarily. And more Cabinet nominations will be made.

CNN White House correspondent Kelly Wallace is standing by for the announcements in Austin, Texas.

Kelly, tell us what we can expect?

KELLY WALLACE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, coming to you from a very windy Austin afternoon. It is going to be a busy day, as you mentioned, Mr. Bush just moments away from his first of two news conferences on this day.

CNN has learned he will announce at least four Cabinet nominees. One we have learned that Mr. Bush has decided to nominate for his treasury secretary, Paul O'Neill.

Now, Mr. O'Neill is currently chairman of the Alcoa Corporation. He was formerly president of International Paper. He is 65 years old. He worked in the Nixon and Ford administration, serving as deputy budget director under President Ford.

Now conservatives, Wolf, expressed some concern earlier this week about Mr. O'Neill's name being floated out there, after it was learned that Mr. O'Neill made some comments back in 1992, where he indicated he supported gas tax increases. But CNN has learned that the incoming president has decided to go ahead and choose Mr. O'Neill.

One Republican operative saying, he not only has policy experience, he has the backing of Wall Street and is a friend of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.

Another name we are expecting to hear from Mr. Bush today, he is expected to tap his long-time friend and trusted adviser Don Evans to be his commerce secretary. Now Mr. Evans most recently served as chairman of the Bush campaign. He was also the chief fund-raiser, helping Mr. Bush bring in about $100 million for his presidential campaign.

He and Mr. Bush go way back to the days when the incoming president was in Midland, Texas working in the oil business. And Wolf, two other names we are expecting today, Mel Martinez, a Hispanic, is expected to be named nominee for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He is currently chairman of Orange County, Florida. He is also a very close ally of Mr. Bush's brother, Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida.

And Ann Veneman is expected to be nominated as agriculture secretary. She most recently served as director of California's Food and Agriculture Department. She also served in Mr. Bush's father's administration.

So a very bust day ahead here, Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: All right, Kelly, standby, we are getting some activity in that room at the University of Texas at Austin. We expect the president-elect to be walking in with those four candidates, the nominees for those positions. I can't help but notice that missing from this list, Kelly, we might not have time to talk about this much is a new defense secretary, but there is a leading candidate. Very briefly, tell us who that is.

WALLACE: Yeah, Wolf, the leading candidate is Sen. Dan Coats, or former Sen. Dan Coats from Indiana. He had served on the Senate Armed Services Committee. He is said to be, by Republicans sources, to be the leading candidate. One Republican saying he thought this was pretty much a done deal, but not exactly. It appears that there is still some talking going on about that. So we are not...

BLITZER: All right.

WALLACE: ... don't have word that it is a done deal yet.

BLITZER: All right, Kelly, here is President-elect George W. Bush and Dick Cheney walking up. Let's listen in.

PRESIDENT-ELECT GEORGE W. BUSH: Thank you all for coming. Today I have an important announcement to make.

There is a reason why the Treasury Department is right next to the White House. It's because the secretary of treasury and the president must work closely for the good of the American people. The secretary of treasury is the chief financial officer of our nation, the successor to Alexander Hamilton.

This job is obviously always important for any administration, but I think it's incredibly important as we head into the 21st century. The world is more connected than ever. Our economy and the lives of every American depend upon our standing in the world.

Secondly, our economy is showing warning signs of a possible slowdown. And so it is incredibly important for me to find somebody who had vast experience, who is a steady hand, who when he speaks, speaks with authority and conviction and knowledge.

I found such a man in Paul O'Neill. Paul O'Neill has strong credentials in government and in business. He worked at the Office of Management and Budget and had a distinguished record.

People who knew Paul in that capacity knew him to be a straight shooter and innovator, someone who could lead. Paul has got vast experience in the private sector. He has run large corporations, and even more importantly, has employed large numbers of people. He knows that all our decisions, and one of the key goals of this administration, will be to make sure that all Americans can find high- paying, high-quality jobs.

Paul has extensive knowledge about the world and the international economy. After all, in his current job, he employs over 140,000 people in 36 countries. He's worked broadly in the field of education. We share a vision of making sure that we have an educated work force as we head into the 21st century.

In the days ahead, there will be much to do together. We must work to keep our economy strong.

That's why we share a commitment to fair and responsible tax relief, and a strong commitment to making sure there is free trade in our world.

I look forward to having this good man by my side. I look forward to having him making our administration's case to the Congress, to the American people and to the world. Therefore, it is a great honor for me to submit to the United States Senate the name of Paul O'Neill as secretary of treasury.

PAUL O'NEILL, TREASURY SECY' NOMINEE: Thank you, President-elect Bush. I am truly honored to be asked to do this important job.

I must tell you in all candor that until three weeks ago I thought I was immune to the suggestion that I should return to public life, having been there before for 16 years. But perhaps it's a mark of the capability of the president-elect in convincing people to do things that he wants them to do that I'm here today to say, yes, I'm going to do this job.

I believe in the president-elect's policy and program, as he's articulated it over the last many months. And I'm dedicated to helping him achieve the greatness that I believe he aspires to for America.

So it's really a pleasure for me to be here today. Some of you have noted in your stories, Secretary Cheney and I go back many years, and so it's also a pleasure to have a prospect of working closely with him again.

Thank you very much.

BUSH: Be glad to take some questions. Karen?

QUESTION: Do you think it would be beneficial or detrimental for President Clinton to visit North Korea before he leaves office?

BUSH: The question was about potential travels for the current president. There's only one president in our country, and that's President Clinton. And he must make the decisions for what's best for our nation.

It's up to the president and his advisers to decide what's best for America. And until I'm the president, he is going to make those decisions.

QUESTION: The Federal Reserve is now saying that there's a significant risk of an economic downturn. Do you worry that you're inheriting a recession? And beyond tax cuts, how would you deal with this?

BUSH: The question was about the Fed's recent actions that signal that we may have some economic problems ahead for our administration. I said during the course of my campaign, and I believe strongly, that tax relief is part of the prescription for any economic ill that our nation may have. I think it is so important for members of the Hill to understand that tax relief is all about economic growth and cash flow and accumulation of capital, and so is Social Security reform.

Part of the reforms we outlined in the campaign on Social Security, as you may remember, talked about personal savings account. That not only encourages people to manage their own money, trust people with their own money, that policy encourages the accumulation of capital in the private sector. Capital is what fuels entrepreneurial growth.

Secondly, our nation must be bold enough to be a nation that's willing to trade freely in the world. One of the cornerstones of our foreign policy must be trade. Not only trade in our own hemisphere, which I think is incredibly important for the United States, but also for Mexico and countries to the south. Free trade in our hemisphere is incredibly important for Canada. But we must be a nation of free traders.

Thirdly, we must review regulations that hamper the accumulation of capital, regulations that make it harder for the entrepreneur to start a business.

And fourthly, we must have a steady voice coming out of our administration, someone, should the economy take a downturn, who can calm people's nerves, calm the markets, calm those who would speculate on the dollar. And that's why I'm naming Paul O'Neill as the secretary of treasury. Such an important, important decision, because he is a man that's capable of doing that job.

QUESTION: Mr. President-elect, sir, are you concerned that by talking down the economy, you run the risk of making the possibility of a downturn even more real, sir?

BUSH: My job as the chief executive officer-soon-to-be is to anticipate. I am hopeful that this economy stays strong. I'm hopeful that the rate of growth of the economy is such that more capital will flow into the private sector, that people will be able to find jobs, that retail sales will be strong, that the automobile industry will be robust.

I'm hopeful that the downturn in the Nasdaq is a correction, because I understand the productivity gains that we'll have in our economy as a result of the new technologies.

I'm hopeful, but I'm also a realist, and one of my jobs is to think ahead just in case.

The Fed sent the signal, and we are going to play the hand we have been dealt. I want everybody to understand loud and clear that our hope in this administration is our economy remain robust. But should it not, we have a plan, the cornerstone of which will be tax relief, free trade, Social Security reform, less regulations.

QUESTION: Mr. President-elect, during the campaign you also spoke about the need for a sweeping energy policy. Can you tell us something specific that you would do, for instance, in the first 100 days to correct rising energy prices?

BUSH: I strongly believe that we must work in concert to increase the amount of supply available for American consumers -- supply of natural gas, supply of coal, supply of plant and equipment.

I believe we need to review all federal land policy, to make sure that we're not missing an opportunity to explore for natural gas in the country.

Natural gas is hemispheric. I like to call it hemispheric in nature, because it is a product that we can find in our own neighborhoods and is immune from price manipulation by OPEC. There are supplies of gas to be discovered in America.

The issue with natural gas is not only its discovery, but its transportation, so we must review all policies that would prevent the construction of pipeline, to be able to move gas from field to market.

When we're undersupplied as a nation and demand increases, prices will go up. And that's what happening in the energy field.

I look forward to working with Congress to pass clean coal technologies, money for clean coal technology, so that we can explore and develop the vast coal reserves in our country, with the comfort of knowing that we're not going to ruin our environment.

I look forward to working with our friends and allies in our own hemisphere to put together a hemispheric energy policy, an energy policy that will allow for the free flow of natural gas, in particular across our respective borders, to make sure there is ample supply, ample supply, to meet the demand of this nation.

And so, Karl, I look forward to, when I'm swearing in, is to put together a strategy that'll make clear to the American people that we will address the needs.

QUESTION: How serious do you think the energy situation is? Would you call it, as your spokesman did, a looming crisis? And some of the steps you just outlined sound more long term than short term. What can your prospective administration do to help consumers in the short term?

BUSH: Well, obviously, we can work with Congress to fund LIHEAP, to help poor consumers that are having trouble paying their energy bills. I look forward to doing that. I think there's going to be bipartisan support for such a measure. After all, it's been funded in the past, and I'm confident we can get that done.

I think there are some ways to expeditiously move natural gas to the market in a way that protects the environment, exploration in some of our Western states, for example.

But there's no question that we're going to have to work with our friends and allies overseas, particularly with the price of crude oil and heating oil, to make sure they understand that they've got to treat their friend, the United States, and our market with ease. They can't be punishing our friend.

And one of the things we're going to have to do is to start up a strong diplomatic effort to work with, as I say, our friends in the Middle East, to have an energy policy there that is respectful to their friend here and other democracies.

The shortest -- the quickest impact on the price of energy price, particularly crude oil, will be to work with OPEC nations and to foster relations so that they may be convinced to open up the spigots to keep the pressure off price.

QUESTION: Mr. President-elect, regarding your meeting later today with African-American ministers, what do you believe you can do specifically to improve your standing among African-Americans?

BUSH: Well, David, first, our meeting this afternoon is with ministers from all walks of life -- different religions, different race. This is not a political meeting. This is a meeting to begin a dialogue about how best to help faith-based programs change people's lives, how best government can encourage as opposed to discourage faith-based programs from performing their commonplace miracles of renewal.

My hope is that when people who may not have supported me get to know me they realize that I am just as intent upon being a good president for them as for those folks who supported me.

My hope is that when people get to know our policies, whether it be making sure that the education system is responsive not only to the children of the parents who voted for me, but responsive to children from all walks of life, that they will realize that our commitment is to an America where the dream shines brightly for everybody.

My hope, my hope is that when people get to know me as a person I'll be able to sit down and say, "We may disagree on a particular piece of public policy, but we don't disagree on an America that is hopeful and strong and vibrant for every child." I've got a lot of work to do, Dave, I understand that. I got a lot of work to do. But you know what? I welcome the opportunity. I look forward to the chance.

I look forward to the chance of healing a nation that has been divided as a result of an election. I look forward to the chance of saying to people, regardless of their political persuasion, that ours will be an administration that focuses on what's right for America, not what's right for a particular party, but what's right for the great country that we all love. And I accept the challenge and I recognize it's there.

QUESTION: You've mentioned Social Security several times. Two questions: How do you persuade Americans at a time when we may be going into a slow down that they want to put their retirement money into private accounts, perhaps in the stock market?

BUSH: Right.

QUESTION: And secondly, are you still planning to form a commission on this as the first step to bringing consensus on it?

BUSH: I said I'd do so in the campaign, form a commission for Social Security. I'm going to look at to make sure it's the right policy. I think it is. And we'll let you know.

Secondly, an investment in the private markets should be viewed as a long-term hold, not something -- the mentality of the day-trader is not a part of the vision of a retirement system where people are able to hold assets for a long period of time.

There will be ups and downs in the marketplace. But the facts are that the rate of return on moneys held in the private markets are significantly higher than that which is achieved off of the Social Security trust.

And in order to make sure that baby boomers who are going to retire within the decade and beyond have got retirement system, we've got to do a better job of getting a rate of return on the moneys in the Social Security trust.

Secondly, one of the key challenges for our nation is to make sure that there is enough money in the private markets to fuel economic growth in the future. And a Social Security system that allows people to manage their own money in private markets will provide the fuel for economic vitality in the future.

And I believe the American people heard this argument.

I want to remind you that my opponent also talked about some kind of private savings accounts; we just disagreed on the funding mechanism. I think the private savings accounts ought to come from the payroll taxes people contribute into the Social Security trust. And this is an important issue that I'm going to prioritize right after I'm elected. QUESTION: Mr. President-elect, there was speculation that you may be looking towards Wall Street to make the treasury secretary pick. How concerned were you about Wall Street's reaction?

And also, Mr. O'Neill is known to believe in low interest rates. Are you expecting any sort of conflict with the chairman of the Federal Reserve over interest rates?

BUSH: I might let him ask the question -- answer the question about his relationship with the Fed. I will tell you -- well, I'll put some word in his mouth. He understands, like I understand, that the Fed makes decision independent of the president and the secretary of treasury.

On the other hand, we will have a good working relationship with Alan Greenspan. He is a very capable American who has made a huge difference for our country.

And first part of the -- oh, Wall Street. Well, I think people on Wall Street who are savvy will understand what a good pick Paul O'Neill is.

And I am -- I looked at a lot of folks, people with different backgrounds and different addresses, and I found the absolutely right person for the job.

Paul, you may want to comment, and then we've got to go eat lunch.

O'NEILL: Thank you.

You know, I'm really mindful of something that is clear to me today, and, frankly, it's the difference between being a free-ranging, self-admitted maverick who would give you a 15 or 20 minute brief on almost anything you'd like to ask about. That was yesterday.

And I understand perfectly well that Fed policy is up to the Federal Reserve chairman.

But maybe as a little background, it would be useful for you to know that I've known and worked with Alan Greenspan since 1969 when I was rising through the ranks to become deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. Alan was there for part of the time as the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. And we became not just professional associates, but close friends.

And you know from the background material, when I left the government, I went to International Paper and eventually became president of International Paper Company, but I kept up my association with Alan over the years.

And in 1987 Alan was a member of the board of directors of what was then the Aluminum Company of America, now Alcoa. And Alan and two or three other outside directors decided that I should join Alcoa as chairman and CEO, so we go back a long way. We've had lots of dealings with each other over the years that I've been at Alcoa and he's been at the Fed.

I've made it my business, at his request, to come by on a fairly regular basis and tell him what I thought he was doing wrong and what I thought he was doing right, which I felt I had the privilege to do being longtime friends and associates.

And what he said to me was, it was valuable to him because he didn't have an opportunity to meet with many people who didn't want something, and so he valued me coming by and sharing with him my perception of what economic affairs were doing in places as far flung as China and Russia and Hungary and Spain and Italy and all the other places that Alcoa has business around the world.

And so I guess I would change your question that said outloud that I favor low interest rates to say that I am here substantially because I believe the president-elect. I have the right ideas about where our economy should go. It's desperately important to everything else we care about in our lives and about leading the world that we have a strong and vibrant economy.

Yes, the rates are growth are going to vary over time. It is true that I'm one who believes that we can operate at higher levels than most economists would have told you 20 years ago were possible; that is to say with higher real rates of growth without inflation, which means stability and job growth and all the other things that are important.

I do believe that. But I also understand my place in this, and that place is to let Alan Greenspan make monetary policy.

From my point of view, it will be important for me to have ideas and suggestions for the president for the formulation of his policy, so that the balance of fiscal policy and monetary policy doesn't get out of kilter and we don't do damage to the very important idea that we need to be the economic engine of the world.

Thank you.

BUSH: Thank you. See you this afternoon.

BLITZER; President-elect George W. Bush saying he will be back presumably with some more Cabinet announcements later this afternoon. Announcing right now that Paul O'Neill, the chairman of Alcoa, is his candidate to become the next treasury secretary of the United States.

Joining us now is CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider.

We heard talk of an economic downturn. The R-word, recession, having been floated out there. Yesterday, President Clinton insisting there is no sign, real sign that there will be a real recession. But there could be some economic trouble ahead, and President-elect Bush made clear he had got a strategy in mind, at least the centerpiece of that strategy being tax relief.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Tax relief, Social Security reform. He said, quote, "We have a plan." It is interesting that the reporters said, by talking so much about the possibility of a downturn, aren't you making things worse?

Well, in a way, what President-elect Bush needs to do is buildup his political capital, to get some momentum going for his program. Well, one way to do that is a sense of urgency in the country that we need change, that we need to do something different.

Because you know people were pretty satisfied with President Clinton's economic policies. But if looks like the economy may be going down a little bit, not necessarily a recession, and if it clearly can't be blamed on the Republicans, on Bush, because he wasn't president, then he could have some capital to build on to say we have to pass a tax cut, we have to reform Social Security, we have to do something about energy costs.

He said, quote, "We play the hand, we have been dealt." Meaning, I've been dealt this hand by somebody else, but I have a plan to deal with it.

BLITZER: All right, Kelly Wallace, our White House correspondent, is standing by in Austin, Texas.

Kelly, one additional Cabinet announcement so far today, the second Cabinet selection from President-elect George W. Bush; Colin Powell for secretary of state having been the first. We do anticipate later today three more; is that right?

WALLACE: That's exactly right. We had the treasury secretary nominee unveiled here. We expect three others. We expect George W. Bush to nominate Don Evans, his long-time friend and adviser, to be commerce secretary. We expect him to tap Mel Martinez, who is currently an Orange County, Florida executive, to be housing and urban development secretary, and Ann Veneman us expected to be nominated as agriculture secretary. She most recently served as head of California's Food and Agriculture Department. She also served in Mr. Bush's father's administration.

And one observation, Wolf. Of course, we heard Mr. Bush mention that because of possible warning signs of a possible slowdown, he wanted to get someone with vast experience, someone with sharp convictions, someone who knew how to get the job done. He chose, of course, Paul O'Neill.

Mr. O'Neill mentioning himself that he goes way back, knows Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve chairman, since 1969. He also has close ties to Vice President-elect Dick Cheney. Mr. O'Neill serving as deputy budget director under President Ford when Mr. Cheney was his chief of staff. So clearly, possible reasons why Mr. Bush went in this direction based on those alliances -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Kelly Wallace in Austin. We heard President-elect George W. Bush say I will see you later for those announcements. We will of course bring complete coverage to you of those announcements and all of other news of the day.

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