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Don't Get Around Much Anymore

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The Washington Post's Dana Milbank and the washingtonpost.com's Akira Hakuta sketch President Bush's press conference on Wednesday.

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By Dana Milbank
Friday, February 29, 2008

The bulletin reached President Bush toward the end of his news conference yesterday.

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Peter Maer of CBS News Radio asked what seemed to be a straightforward question. "What's your advice to the average American who is hurting now, facing the prospect of $4-a-gallon gasoline, a lot of people facing . . . "

"Wait, what did you just say?" the shocked president interrupted. "You're predicting $4-a-gallon gasoline?"

"A number of analysts are predicting $4-a-gallon gasoline," Maer explained.

You could've knocked Bush over with a feather. "Oh, yeah?" he said. "That's interesting. I hadn't heard that."

Uh-oh. The president, once known for his common-guy skills, sounded eerily like his old man, who in 1992 appeared surprised that supermarkets had bar-code scanners. On Wednesday, the $4-a-gallon forecasts had been on the front page of the New York Times, and on NBC's "Today Show" and CBS's "Early Show." In the days before that, the prediction -- made by AAA, among others -- was in the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, the New York Post, the Dallas Morning News, even the Kansas City Star. The White House press secretary took a question about $4 gas at her Wednesday press briefing. A poll last month found that nearly three-quarters of Americans expect $4 gas.

The president, however, had difficulty grasping the possibility, even after Maer told him. "You just said the price of gasoline may be up to $4 a gallon -- or some expert told you that," Bush repeated. "That creates a lot of uncertainty."

Bush, too, faces a lot of uncertainty, and not of the petroleum-derived variety. In these waning months of the Bush presidency, Congress is increasingly ignoring his ultimatums. Reporters have left him for the campaign trail. And Bush at times seems to be lacking his killer instinct.

At yesterday's session, NBC's David Gregory invited him to criticize Democratic presidential candidates for not knowing much about the expected new Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev. "I don't know much about Medvedev, either," Bush replied.

Agence France-Presse's Olivier Knox asked Bush why he was going to the Olympics in China despite the country's human rights record. "I'm a sports fan," the president reasoned.

And when Michael Abramowitz of The Post asked Bush about his reluctance to talk to hostile foreign leaders, Bush delivered a tirade about the Castro brothers -- and then disclosed his intention to give Abramowitz a hug.

The commander in chief, detached and defanged, seemed less concerned with the power of the presidency than with the topics of his oratory. "I talked about a missile defense system," he said. "I talk about religious freedom. . . . I talk about Darfur and Iran and Burma. . . . I talked about some of the [tax] breaks." And how about his dispute with Democrats in Congress over immunity for phone companies that share records with the government? "I'm going to keep talking about the issue," he vowed. "I will keep talking about the issue and talking about the issue."


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