Bush Maintains Cautious Optimism on Economy

President Bush said Tuesday his administration is prepared to take fresh action, if necessary, to bolster the nation's flagging economy and financial sector. Video by AP
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 18, 2008; 5:33 PM

JACKSONVILLE, Fla., March 18 -- President Bush urged Americans on Tuesday to keep in mind the "anchors" of low unemployment and flexibility in the U.S. economy, even as the Federal Reserve announced a historic rate cut in another bold attempt to stave off a possible market crisis.

Stopping at the Jacksonville Port Authority between Republican fundraising stops in Florida, Bush continued to sound a theme of measured concern amid the events that have shaken financial confidence in recent days. He acknowledged "challenging" times but insisted that "we're going to be just fine" in the end.

"The key is to recognize problems and to act early, which is what we've done," Bush said, adding later: "If there needs to be further action, we'll take it."

But the president offered no specific new proposals, focusing instead on the $152 billion economic stimulus package that will yield payment checks for most U.S. households beginning in May and on housing reforms that he first proposed in August. He also praised the Bear Stearns rescue package brokered by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and his Treasury secretary, Henry M. Paulson Jr., over the weekend.

The remarks underscored the relatively limited role a president often plays in economic crises, particularly one that is focused on Wall Street and areas of fiscal policy overseen by the independent Federal Reserve. Bush also has appeared hesitant in recent days to go too far in offering government solutions, warning explicitly Friday that "overcorrecting" by policymakers could drive the economy into the figurative ditch.

He also repeated an emphasis on what he called "anchors" of the U.S. economy, including relatively low unemployment in most areas, flexible markets and a "vibrant" small-business culture. "In the long term, we're going to be just fine," he said.

Bush's cautious optimism has prompted growing criticism from Democrats in Congress and the party's two presidential contenders, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.), who have characterized Bush as out of touch with the worries of ordinary Americans.

Bush acknowledged that the markets have been "subjected to stress" and vowed to take further action "as long as it doesn't damage the long-term health of our economy." He made no mention of the Fed's new rate cut, which was announced as he was addressing a modest crowd of stevedores and local politicians at the Jacksonville port.

Standing in front of an operation that does significant business with Latin America and the Caribbean, Bush also urged Congress to approve a free-trade deal with Colombia that will be sent to Capitol Hill after the Easter recess. Democrats have signaled that they are unlikely to move on a deal that would antagonize labor unions in a pivotal presidential election year, but Bush characterized the proposed pact as a matter of national and economic security.

Bush focused particularly on the ongoing battles between Colombia's elected government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC, a leftist guerrilla force that is designated a terrorist group by the U.S. government. The president emphasized recent allegations that FARC was receiving support from Venezuela and its leftist leader, Hugo Chavez, and said opening up trade with Colombia would help in that conflict.

"The United States strongly supports, strongly stands with Colombia in its fight against terrorists and the drug lords," he said.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company