By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 19, 2008
After days of silence amid a broadening financial crisis, President Bush yesterday defended his approval of "extraordinary measures" to shore up faltering Wall Street firms and said his administration would remain focused on the "serious challenges" facing the troubled economy.
"The American people are concerned about the situation in our financial markets and our economy, and I share their concerns," Bush said in a brief statement delivered outside the Oval Office, adding: "Our financial markets continue to deal with serious challenges. As our actions demonstrate, my administration is focused on meeting these challenges."
The remarks were Bush's first public comments on the economic tumult since before his administration put together an $85 billion rescue for insurer American International Group on Monday. Bush said he canceled a political fundraising trip scheduled yesterday to Alabama and Florida in order to "closely monitor the situation in our financial markets."
But the statement, which lasted just two minutes, included no reassurances about the overall strength of the U.S. economy -- a notable omission for a president who invariably emphasizes the positive when discussing economic issues. His appearance came several hours before reports emerged of a financial rescue plan being developed by the Treasury Department.
Democrats criticized the brevity of Bush's remarks and sought to blame him for much of the crisis. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that the meltdown was due to the administration's "failed policies" on the economy and financial markets and suggested that Bush had failed to offer sufficient leadership during this week's dramatic market turmoil.
"We wondered if he was ever going to come out of hiding on this subject," Pelosi said. "He came out in one minute and said very little. What was expected was an explanation to the American people of what is happening because it has a direct impact on their lives."
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) accused Bush of "staying hunkered down in the White House" while aides such as Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. handled the issue.
White House press secretary Dana Perino defended the administration's handling of economic issues, saying Congress failed to approve numerous housing and regulatory reforms proposed by the White House. She also said the outlook for the crisis is unclear.
"I can't tell you where this ends," Perino said. "I wish that I could."
The appearance followed several days in which Bush ignored questions from reporters about the economy and focused on other duties and events in public, including a state dinner for Guana's president and a brief trip to Texas to survey hurricane damage.
On Monday morning, after news broke that the government would let Lehman Brothers declare bankruptcy, Bush said during a press appearance with Ghanaian President John Kufuor that he was "confident that our capital markets . . . can deal with these adjustments." The president took no questions, leaving it to Paulson to preside at a White House news briefing later in the day.
His relative absence, at least in public, led to growing criticism, particularly among Democrats, that Bush has ceded too much ground to Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and has not used his bully pulpit to reassure nervous Americans. In the past, Bush has often taken a prominent public role during crises.
Leon E. Panetta, who was chief of staff to President Bill Clinton (D), said Bush "appears to be AWOL" on the economic collapse. "When there is what I would call an economic 9/11 crisis on our hands, it is really important to try to restore confidence with the American people," he said. "The fact is that people hired him for that job; they didn't hire Hank Paulson."
White House aides bristle at such criticism, noting that Bush has regularly spoken about financial and economic issues throughout his tenure and that previous presidents, including Clinton, are often reticent to talk publicly during such crises to avoid spooking the markets.
"Democrats will be critical no matter what we do," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto. "But the notion that the president has not been out talking about the economy and the financial markets, not just this week but over the past year, is ridiculous."
Bush's public profile has been overshadowed further by the presidential campaign between Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.). McCain has sought to distance himself from the unpopular president, and the candidate's aides have told reporters there are no plans to invite Bush on the campaign trail this fall.
"The White House can read polls just like everybody else," former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Wednesday. "My guess is that they are gauging how visible to make the president around some of these major, substantive developments."
Bush, who has not taken a public question from a reporter since a visit to South Korea on Aug. 6, continued that trend yesterday. After reading his remarks, Bush turned away from the podium.
"Is the economy still strong, Mr. President?" a reporter shouted. Bush ignored the question and kept walking.
Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.