WASHINGTON – President Bush on Monday held an end-of-the-year news conference, saying he'll continue working for the next four years on issues such as Social Security (search) reform, education, reforming the tax code and securing the nation's homeland.
He also vowed that Iraqi elections will be held Jan. 30, despite the increasing violence in that country.
"The terrorists will attempt to delay the elections, to intimidate people in their country, to disrupt the democratic process any way they can," Bush told reporters in his 17th solo press conference of his presidency. "Yet I am confident of the result. I'm confident the terrorists will fail. The elections will go forward and Iraq will be a democracy" that reflects the freedoms and the ideals of its people.
As for how much longer U.S. troops will have to stay in Iraq, Bush said he'll take the advice from military commanders on the ground, but no one is under "any illusions" that that will be anytime soon.
"We'd like to achieve our objective as quickly as possible," Bush said, and getting there rests upon the ability of the Iraqi army to secure its own country on its own. He noted that U.S. Central Command chief Gen. John Abizaid (search) and U.S. Gen. George Casey, the chief of the multinational force in Iraq, are "optimistic, and positive about the gains we're making."
The results of the U.S. effort to put Iraqi security in the hands of its own people so far has been "mixed," Bush said, adding that some Iraqis are obviously not ready for the gigantic task.
"There have been some cases where, when the heat got on, they left the battlefields on, they leave the battlefield," he said of some Iraqi recruits. "We are under no illusion that this Iraqi force is ready to fight in toto."
And on where the elusive Usama bin Laden (search) may be, Bush guessed that the Al Qaeda leader likely is in the lawless tribal regions along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where many in the intelligence community believe he is being given refuge.
"But I don't have to guess at the damage we have done to his organization," the president said; at least 75 percent of the terror ring's leaders and officials have either been killed or captured.
The news conference, the first since two days after the presidential election, comes as Time magazine named Bush its Person of the Year for 2004 and as questions remain about who will populate the president's Cabinet during his second term. What seemed certain is that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (search) had a seat in the Cabinet there as long as he wanted.
Bush Defends Rumsfeld
Bush was asked about calls for Rumsfeld to resign, given the military situation in Iraq and his recent remarks regarding troops in the region that have been interpreted by some as callous. The secretary has been roundly criticized for not personally signing the letters announcing deaths of military personnel to their families. He also faced criticism after a soldier asked him why troops are forced to look in scrap heaps for protective metals to bolt to their unarmored vehicles.
"The secretary of defense is a really complex job. It's complex in times of peace and it's complex in times of war," the president said, adding that Rumsfeld is overseeing two wars and a massive transformation of the U.S. military, among other things.
Administration officials toured the morning talk shows over the weekend, voicing the president's support for Rumsfeld; the commander in chief asked him to stay on for a second term a couple of weeks ago.
"I was very pleased when he said 'yes' and I asked him to stay on because I understand the nature of the job of the secretary of defense and I believe he's doing a really fine job," Bush responded when asked how to reassure lawmakers that Rumsfeld is the right man to continue leading the job.
Some leading lawmakers also came to the secretary's defense after a barrage of attacks on him. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairmen John Warner, R-Va., said it's not the time for changes at the Pentagon, and Indiana Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, said Rumsfeld should be held accountable but stay in office.
"I think he does need to answer questions, he knows he does need to be accountable to the Congress ... but the important thing is, does he have the confidence of the president and the military personnel that serve under him? And I think that answer is 'yes,'" Sen.-elect John Thune, R-S.D., told FOX News Monday morning before the press conference.
Rumsfeld told FOX News' Bret Baier over the weekend that he's been around Washington long enough to be used to this type of talk and that he isn't sweating it.
Homeland Security on the Front Burner
Bush has yet to name a director of national intelligence, as called for in the intelligence reform bill he signed into law last week — the biggest reorganization of the nation's spy community in 50 years. The new DNI will help the nation confront "new dangers" in the post-Cold War era. Because of that measure, the intelligence apparatus "will be more unified, coordinated and effective than every before and the American people will be more secure as a result," Bush said.
"We'll find someone who knows something about intelligence, is capable and honest and ready to do the job and I'll let you know at the appropriate time when I find such a person," Bush said.
Another big item the president was asked is who the next homeland security secretary will be.
As Tom Ridge (search) prepares to step down, the White House is searching for another person to recommend after former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik (search) withdrew his name from consideration after news broke that he had he had failed to pay taxes on an illegal nanny. The White House has said it hopes to choose another person to nominate for the post by Christmas.
Bush on Monday expressed confidence in the candidate vetting system, which came under fire after the Kerik controversy.
"I think he would have done a fine job as secretary of homeland security and I appreciate his service to his country," Bush said of Kerik, who was police commissioner of New York during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"I've got great confidence in our vetting process. So the lessons learned is continue to vet and ask good questions."
On securing the homeland, Bush also said terror detainees at Guantanamo Bay (search) are being routinely reviewed so that they don't stay at the detention camp longer than necessary but long enough for U.S. officials to determine whether they pose a threat to the United States. Prisoner conditions at the camp have been under fire, as have the interrogation techniques used there. Human rights groups also have decried the length of time some have been held without counsel or any sort of hearing.
"We're reviewing the status of the people at Guantanamo on a regular basis," Bush said, noting that about 200 have been released.
"But you've got to understand the dilemma we're in — these are people who have been scooped off a battlefield, attempting to kill U.S. troops. I want to make sure before they're released that they don't come back to kill again. I think it's important to let the world know that we fully understand our obligations in a society that honors rule of law to do that but I also have a responsibility to protect the American people."
On immigration, Bush once again voiced support for a type of foreign worker card that would allow foreigners working in the United States to visit their home countries without fear of not being allowed back into this country. At the same time, he said there needs to be stronger border enforcement and a crackdown on immigrant smuggling.
"I think this is a issue that will make it easier for us to enforce our borders and I believe it's an issue that will show, when we get it right, the compassion and heart of the American people," Bush said. The card idea, he added, "recognizes the reality in the world in which we live — there are some jobs in America that Americans won't do and others are willing to do … this is not automatic citizenship, the American people must understand that."
But people who want to become U.S. citizens need to "get in line" with those trying to do it legally, he said.
Separately, Bush vowed to send to Congress a federal budget that will cut the deficit (search) in half within five years and maintain strict spending discipline.
"We will provide every tool and resource for our military, we will protect the homeland," Bush said, adding that he would "maintain strict discipline in spending tax dollars."
The president also said he will soon appoint a "citizens panel" to recommend ways to transform what he called the "outdated" tax code, and vowed to work with Congress on issues such as making health care more accessible and affordable and raising school standards, particularly in the nation's high school.
Bush said there would be "difficult choices" to make to reform the Social Security system but wouldn't give specifics until Congress addresses the issue. The president has so far said he wants younger workers to have the chance to divert a portion of their payroll taxes into private accounts and saying he will not support an increase in payroll taxes.
"The first step in this process is for members of Congress to realize we have a problem," he said.
As it stands now, Social Security would begin paying more in benefits than it takes in by 2018.
On another issue, Bush defended his close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin (search), with whom he has clashed over the War on Terror and the recent disputed elections in Ukraine. Bush and Putin are scheduled to meet in Slovakia on Feb. 24.
"The relationship's an important relationship and I would call the relationship a good relationship," Bush said, adding that he's talked with the Russian leader about getting that country admitted to the World Trade Organization.
Bush also said he work toward giving both Russia and the United States equal access to nuclear storage sites