IMAGE: BUSH NEWS CONFERENCE
Susan Walsh  /  AP
President Bush answers a question Wednesday during the 18th news conference of his presidency.
NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 1/26/2005 5:48:21 PM ET 2005-01-26T22:48:21

Calling this weekend’s national election in Iraq “a grand moment" in Iraqi history, President Bush urged the populace Wednesday to “defy these terrorists” waging an unrelenting campaign of violence by casting their ballots.

Despite the continuing violence, Bush predicted that millions of Iraqis would “show bravery” by voting in Sunday’s election, but he conceded that some voters would be intimidated by insurgents’ threats to target voters and polling stations.

“We anticipate a lot of Iraqis will vote,” Bush said. “… I urge people to vote. I urge people to defy these terrorists.”

Speaking on the deadliest day for U.S. forces in 15 years, Bush expressed his condolences to the families of 31 U.S. troops killed in a helicopter crash shortly before his news conference. Along with the deaths of six other troops in unrelated incidents, the crash push the Iraq war death toll above 1,400 for U.S. forces.

A ‘very discouraging’ day in Iraq
“The story today is going to be very discouraging to the American people,” Bush said, referring to the crash. “I understand that. It is the long-term objective that is vital — that is to spread freedom.”

He lashed out at critics who say Iraq has become too costly and deadly, suggesting that such second-guessing could hurt the U.S. mission. The administration plans to seek $80 billion more to pay for war costs, bringing the total since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to more than $300 billion.

“I think the Iraqi people are wondering whether or not this nation has the will necessary to stand with them as democracy evolves,” Bush said. “The enemy would like nothing more than the United States to precipitously pull out and withdraw before the Iraqis are prepared to defend themselves.”

More than half of Americans think it is unlikely that Iraq will become stable and democratic, according to an Associated Press poll.

Undeterred by such numbers, Bush said he was leading the nation toward an honorable goal in Iraq and across the world. “I firmly planted the flag of liberty,” he said.

Wide spectrum of topics addressed
The news conference — the the 18th of his presidency and the first of his second term — Bush touched on a wide spectrum of topics, including his proposal to overhaul Social Security, the budget deficit, shaky U.S. relations with allies and Democratic complaints about his Cabinet picks.

Bush restated his support for an overhaul of Social Security that features a private investment option and said he was looking forward to “leading the Congress” on the issue.

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He continued to eschew specifics of the proposal, except to reiterate his support for an option for people to privately invest part of their payroll contributions to the system and to say there should be no increase in payroll taxes, which fund the Social Security program.

The president acknowledged that some Republicans were nervous about dealing with the issue, but “our job is to confront issues and not pass them on," he said. He said he would “continue to speak directly to the people” to build support for overhauling the system, which the administration predicts will go “bankrupt” by 2042.

According to Social Security’s own trustees and congressional auditors, the system will only exhaust its trust fund in that year and will be able to continue to provide 70 percent or more of promised benefits on a “pay-as-you-go” basis. Other estimates put that date at 2052 or later and point out that, even at 70 percent, benefit levels would be higher than they are now.

Bush elaborates on inaugural pledge
Less than a week after his inaugural address, Bush reiterated his pledge to wipe tyranny from the globe but seemed to scale back on expectations.

“This will involve the commitment of generations, but we’re seeing much progress in our time,” he said.

Bush spoke the same day the Senate confirmed Condoleezza Rice , one of the architects of his policy in Iraq, as secretary of state. "She is going to make a wonderful secretary of state,” he said.

On other topics, Bush:

  • Promised to try to ease racial tensions. “We’ve got to shed ourselves of bigotry if we expect to lead by example. I’ll do as best as I can as president.”
  • Said the Education Department and conservative commentator Armstrong Williams made a mistake when the department paid Williams to promote administration policies. “There needs to be a nice, independent relationship between the White House and the press,” Bush said, adding that the White House had not known about the agreement.
  • In response to a question, said he was unaware of a man who was arrested by the Jordanian government and charged with slander after he delivered a lecture titled “Why We Boycott America.” Bush urged King Abdullah II to “make sure that democracy continues to advance in Jordan.”
  • Mixed up budget and deficit numbers when asked about money requests he would make in his budget proposal Feb. 7.

After the news conference, Bush gave an interview with the al Arabiya television network, warning Iran and Syria against trying to interfere in Iraq’s internal affairs. He also called on Syria to stop the flow of money, arms and people across the border, saying they were being used to terrorize Iraqis and attack U.S. soldiers.

Bush also met with the Congressional Black Caucus and Republicans to discuss his proposal to overhaul Social Security.

NBC News correspondent Norah O'Donnell and the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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