The Escape Artist

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The incredible shrinking presidency of George Walker Bush hit a new milestone yesterday: The commander in chief turned to sorcery.

"You know, if there was a magic wand to wave, I'd be waving it," Bush informed Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times in a Rose Garden news conference. She had asked him about the recession, which everybody seems to be acknowledging but Bush.

Further, the wizard of the West Wing said he would use his supernatural powers, if he had them, to conjure up lower gas prices. "I think that if there was a magic wand and say, 'Okay, drop price,' I'd do that," said the illusionist.

Abracadabra! Watch the president pull a rabbit out of a hat! See his low ratings vanish before your very eyes!

Well, not this time. "There is no magic wand to wave right now," Bush finally confessed to Stolberg.

But the president had something else up his sleeve. He used his appearance before the White House press corps to perform one of the oldest tricks in the book: blaming Congress. He faulted lawmakers 16 times in his opening statement alone.

"Americans are understandably anxious about issues affecting their pocketbook," he began, and "they're looking to their elected leaders in Congress for action." Implicit in his formulation was that Americans no longer look to him for action.

"Congress has repeatedly blocked efforts," he protested. "Congress continues to block provisions. . . . Congress needs to clear away obstacles. . . . Congress is considering a massive, bloated farm bill. . . . Congress needs to do more. . . . I ask Congress to do its part."

The reporters in the audience didn't fall for the blame-Congress sleight-of-hand.

"Gas prices have gone up, foreclosures have gone up, there have been layoffs, news just this morning that consumer confidence is down yet again," recited the Associated Press's Jennifer Loven. "Isn't it time to think about doing more?"

"Were you premature in saying that the U.S. economy is not in a recession?" needled Jeremy Pelofsky of Reuters.

"Americans believe we are in a recession," pointed out American Urban Radio's April Ryan. "What will it take for you to say those words, that we are in a recession?"

The illusionist swirled his cape and turned that into a question about Congress. "I mean, you know, the words on how to define the economy don't reflect the anxiety the American people feel," he ventured. Rubbing his nose, he continued: "The average person doesn't really care what we call it. . . . These are difficult times. And the American people know it, and they want to know whether or not Congress knows it."

Bush, sporting a bright-green tie and a new haircut, employed many pyrotechnics during his Rose Garden performance. He shook his head and made a sad shrug as he spoke of Congress's many failures. He chopped at the lectern with his hand and slammed his palm for emphasis as he told ABC News's Martha Raddatz about the "thugs and killers" in Afghanistan. He teased Stolberg about the Times's boycott of Saturday night's White House Correspondents' Association dinner. And he chitchatted with Ryan, telling her she's "lookin' good in yellow" and asking about her baby.

But diversions would get Bush only so far. After the White House called the news conference, but half an hour before Bush stepped from the Oval Office, the Conference Board announced that consumer confidence fell in April to its lowest point since the Iraq invasion in 2003. That started a new sell-off on Wall Street, where investors await today's report on economic growth in the first quarter. "Are you concerned that they will show us to officially be in a recession?" Stolberg asked Bush.

"I think they'll show that we're -- it's a very slow economy," he replied.

The Washington Post's Dan Eggen tried to put Bush in one of his least favorite places -- the psychoanalyst's couch. "You've expressed frustration with Congress," he pointed out. "Are you frustrated? Are you angry? And do you have any real hope of being able to work with this Congress this year?"

Bush looked around, as if puzzled. "I believe that they're letting the American people down, is what I believe," he answered.

A chief way in which Congress is letting the American people down, the president said, is by refusing to approve oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. "They've repeatedly blocked environmentally safe exploration in ANWR," he said, depriving the nation of "27 million gallons of gasoline and diesel every day." This was one of the oldest tricks under Bush's cloak -- he has been making the ANWR case, unsuccessfully, for eight years -- and his delivery was a bit rusty. "Repeatedly" came out as "repleatedly," and "27 million gallons" became "27 millions of gallons."

Reporters quickly pointed out that, whatever the merits of oil exploration in ANWR, it is a long-term proposal that won't help this summer's gas prices. "Opening up ANWR is not long-term," Bush objected. "It's intermediate-term."

So now the president is reduced to arguing the difference between long-term and intermediate-term. His is a slow and torturous disappearing act.

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