Bush used the news conference, and a subsequent interview with the pan-Arab al-Arabiya television, to encourage turnout in Sunday's elections in Iraq. "I want to express my appreciation for the courageous Iraqis who are willing to step forth and promote democracy, and urge all the citizens in Iraq to vote and to show the terrorists they cannot stop the march of freedom," he told al-Arabiya in a rare direct message to viewers in the Arab world.
But he lowered expectations as the day progressed; at the news conference, Bush said "millions of Iraqi voters" would turn out, yet when he met with the Arab television crew a couple of hours later, he said, "thousands and thousands of Iraqis want to vote."
President Bush, during a hastily called appearance in the White House briefing room, figuratively plants a "flag of liberty" in the lectern to emphasize a point of last week's inaugural speech.
(Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
_____Bush News Conference_____
Video: President Bush discusses Iraq elections, his inaugural speech and the confirmation of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
In the interview, Bush warned Iran not to try to influence the elections and Syria to stop providing a route into Iraq for insurgents.
Bush ignored questions about complaints by Senate Democrats who used Rice's confirmation to excoriate his Iraq policy and discredited claims about weapons of mass destruction. And he declined to address statements to the Senate by Alberto R. Gonzales, his nominee for attorney general, asserting that even if torture is ruled out, "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" of foreign prisoners is not forbidden if it is conducted by the CIA overseas.
On the domestic front, Bush focused on Social Security but described the looming shortfall as a "problem" instead of a "crisis" after critics charged he was exaggerating the severity of the situation. Still, he suggested that young people today faced the prospect that "the system will be bankrupt" when they reach retirement, an assertion that Democrats assailed as misleading.
The Social Security program will collect less money than it is obligated to distribute starting in 2018 but the trust fund holds enough obligations from the U.S. Treasury to keep paying full benefits until at least 2042, according to government projections. After that point, it would be able to afford to pay out 73 percent of wage-adjusted benefits.
Bush said he was open to ideas advanced by skeptical Republicans, such as House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (Calif.), whom he praised for "thinking creatively" and met with privately later in the day. "You'll find as this process unfolds that there will be a lot of different suggestions -- some of them valid, some of them not valid," Bush said. "But the idea that people are bringing forth ideas is a really good sign."
Later in the day, Bush met at the White House with the 43-member Congressional Black Caucus. Members said Bush listened quietly as they went through their legislative agenda, much of which takes a dramatically different approach to social issues than envisioned by Bush. The caucus plan calls for preserving affirmative action, establishing universal health care and keeping Social Security "as a safety net" for older Americans.
"He was attentive, he was listening, I think he was engaged, but whether this will have any impact on any of his policies remains to be seen," Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said of Bush.
Staff writer Michael A. Fletcher contributed to this report.