WASHINGTON – During his first solo news conference since February, a smiling President Bush freely discussed a wide array of topics, ranging from Tuesday's historic midterm election to the progress made on the U.N. Iraq resolution.
After congratulating the newly-elected congressional class, the president hit hard, warning Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that the United Nations was close to passing a resolution demanding he disarm.
"He's a threat. He's a threat to the country. He's a threat to people in his neighborhood. He's a real threat. And it's now time for the world to come together and disarm him," the president said in a news conference that took place at the Old Executive Office Building.
Additionally, though the president said he was still recovering from the 2002 elections, he confirmed that Vice President Dick Cheney would be his running mate if he decides to run for re-election in 2004.
"Should I decide to run, Vice President Cheney will be my running mate. He's done an excellent job. I appreciate his advice. I appreciate his counsel. I appreciate his friendship. He is a superb vice president, and there's no reason for me to change ... I am confident that he will serve another term."
On Wednesday, the United States handed the United Nations Security Council a new resolution, which featured a compromise on how to deal with Iraq should it fail to comply with demands for disarmament.
The current U.S. draft includes a greater role for the Security Council but still frees the United States to take military action against Iraq if inspectors say it isn't complying.
Bush, who spoke Thursday with President Vladimir Putin of Russia and President Jacques Chirac of France — the most reluctant Security Council partners of the new resolution — said he was "optimistic" that the Security Council would pass the resolution on Friday.
"When this resolution passes, I will be able to say that the United Nations has recognized the threat and now we're going to work together to disarm him," he said.
Asked whether trying to disarm Iraq would anger other countries, Bush said: "That's like saying we should not go after Al Qaeda because we might irritate somebody and that would create a danger to Americans. My attitude is you got to deal with terrorism in a firm way.
"But if [Saddam] is not going to disarm, we'll disarm him in order to make the world a more peaceful place. And some people aren't going to like that, I understand. But some people won't like it if he ends up with a nuclear weapon and uses it."
Bush also explained the difference in his posture toward Iraq versus his approach to North Korea, which recently admitted it has secretly and illegally sought to develop nuclear weapons since at least the mid-1990s.
"With North Korea, we're taking a different strategy initially and it is this: that we are going to work with countries in the neighborhood to convince North Korea that it is not in the world's interest that they develop a nuclear weapon."
The president began his news conference by congratulating the new class of Congress.
"I congratulate the men and women, Republicans and Democrats, who were elected this week to public office all across America. I appreciate their willingness to leave their private lives and to serve their communities and to serve our nation," the president said.
While trying to appear humbled by having a new Congress with a Republican majority, his glee was apparent. He called several reporters by their nicknames and asked one pregnant reporter whether she was going to name her daughter Georgia W.
He then quickly repeated his call for the passage of several initiatives that have been left in limbo in the current Congress. Among the tasks left undone are 12 of the government's 13 spending bills, and the Homeland Security Department bill, which has been bogged down in a dispute over how much authority the president should have to hire, transfer and fire workers.
"The single most important item of unfinished business on Capitol Hill is to create a unified Department of Homeland Security that will vastly improve our ability to protect our coasts and our borders and our communities. The election may be over, but a terrorist threat is still real. The Senate must pass a bill that will strengthen our ability to protect the American people," he said.
The current Congress returns to session next Tuesday to finish up work left undone by lawmakers who abandoned Washington last month to campaign at home. Analysts say they think the Senate will complete the homeland security bill, but are uncertain whether the Republicans will push to delay completion of the spending bills until they take over in the next session.
The Senate will switch to Republican hands in the 108th Congress. Tuesday's elections proved historic. The president's party made gains in the House, the first time a Republican president has picked up seats in a midterm election.
The president said it was premature to discuss the objectives of the upcoming Congress, but the president did name several issues he wants addressed at the top of the session — a prescription drug benefit for seniors, terrorism insurance, judicial confirmations and tax reform.
"Obviously there's going to be a huge laundry list of things people want to get done, and my job is to set priorities and get them done. And job creation and economic security, as well as homeland security, are the most important priorities we face," he said.
Analysts and members of the opposition have said the Republicans' success was a direct result of the president's rigorous campaign activities, stumping for candidates across the country at a frenetic pace.
Bush said that he didn't think that the candidates who won did so because of contributions he made, traversing the country hitting 67 stops and raising $140 million for campaigns and the party.
"Candidates win elections because they are good candidates, not because they happen to have the president as a friend, or a foe for that matter," Bush said.
"I really don't put this in personal terms. I know people in Washington like to do that, you know, 'George Bush won, George Bush lost,' that's the way they do it here, zero-sum in Washington. And I know that. But if you're really interested in what I think, I think the fact that Norm Coleman ran a very difficult race in difficult circumstances and won speaks volumes about Norm Coleman," he said, referring to the Republican senator-elect from Minnesota.