President Bush, following a hastily arranged series of meetings with advisers and business leaders on the slumping national economy, yesterday said he is "concerned that we're in a downturn" and indicated that the depth of a recession would depend on whether the Persian Gulf crisis turns into a prolonged standoff.
"I'd like to be a little reassuring on this economy," he said in an interview on CNN.
"I am concerned about a slowdown... . But I am not a gloom and doom person on where the American economy will be before long. And yet I don't want to mislead you, because I am concerned that we're in a downturn here."
His comments came after a week of high-level attention to the economy in meetings that stretched from Camp David to the White House.
After months of wrestling with the gulf crisis and the mid-term elections, the president and his advisers were anxious to turn in a highly visible way to the problem of the deteriorating economy, White House sources said.
Business executives who met with Bush yesterday told him the nation had already slipped into recession -- a characterization Bush avoided a few hours later. And on Wednesday, he heard a debate among advisers over whether over-regulation of bank lending was stifling the economy.
In the interview with CNN, Bush said that if the country does slide into recession "it will not be deep and we will come out of it relatively soon -- six months at most."
He said the sharp rise in oil prices since Iraq invaded Kuwait three months ago "is the major question mark in terms of the depth of the slowdown or recession."
Bush, whose undergraduate degree from Yale University was in economics, prefaced those remarks by saying, "I am not an economist."
While not directly addressing the question of over-regulation, Bush said that banks are now paying the price for their "excesses" of the 1980s, when "we had kind of a go-go lending policies in some of our financial institutions... . Loans were made then that wouldn't be made now."
Bush started the series of meetings on the deteriorating economy last Friday, when he called his top economic advisers to Camp David.
He continued the sessions Wednesday, meeting at the White House with bank and financial regulators.
Yesterday's session with about a dozen business executives, the first time the president has discussed the economy with outsiders, will be repeated today when he meets with another group of business executives.
A senior Bush administration official described the meetings as "listening sessions from the president's point of view."
He got a earful from the business executives yesterday.
"There was a view that we might have slipped into a recession," said John G. Medlin Jr., president and chief executive officer of First Wachovia Corp., a Winston-Salem, N.C., bank holding company, after the 1 1/2-hour White House meeting.
Administration officials said Bush wants to hear from as many different perspectives as possible as he and his top advisers plot their course for next year.
"All of it is aimed at coming up with a series of initiatives for the budget or the State of the Union that would be targeted for growth in the economy," a senior administration official said yesterday.
The president's political advisers say that Bush's political fortunes obviously hinge on two issues: war and recession.
The advisers said the administration is seeking ways to stimulate the economy, but his options could be limited given a budget deficit that will probably exceed $300 billion this fiscal year, even with the deficit reduction package he and the Congress reached.
That makes the usual method of stimulating the economy through additional spending difficult.
"There are limits to what you can do," said a Republican strategist close to the administration.
The president has said he would consider introducing a package of tax breaks designed to stimulate growth when Congress returns next year.
There were reports yesterday that the administration is considering cuts in popular government benefit programs such as Social Security and Medicare as part of the budget it will submit to Congress in February.
The cuts being considered would reduce benefits for affluent recipients with the savings used to provide tax cuts for the poor and the middle class, an administration source said.
But administration officials also are talking about other elements that would be aimed at the middle class, in part to head off criticism from the Democrats that they are cushioning the wealthy.
No decisions have been made, but one idea that has been discussed outside the administration is a payroll tax cut.
The meeting last weekend at Camp David that included Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Michael Boskin, Budget Director Richard G. Darman, White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady and Vice President Quayle.
Much of the discussion was about whether or not there is a credit crunch in the country and what its causes might be.
An administration official described Wednesday's meeting as "essentially a briefing for the president about what is going on in banking" by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and an official from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., whose Bank Insurance Fund is being drawn down by a continuing number of bank failures.
That meeting sparked a brief debate over whether regulators are forcing banks to be too restrictive in their lending policies, causing a credit crunch that hurts business.
Darman, Sununu and Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher expressed concerns that over-regulation is stifling the economy, but Greenspan and Brady contended that regulatory policies have been "prudent," administration sources said.
Staff writers John M. Berry, Albert Crenshaw and Dan Balz contributed to this report.