Bush Forced Into 'Diminished Role' in Economic Crisis

President Bush has tried to reassure Americans and the stock market that the U.S. economy will be all right, but the certainty of his words has steadily eroded in recent days and have had little impact -- at least any positive impact.

Bush began edging toward the exit today by signing an executive order that starts the transition to a new administration. But even before the paperwork was signed, Bush's unease as his term winds down was strikingly on display earlier this week when he traveled to the Washington suburb of Chantilly, Va., to speak with small-business owners who sat on folding chairs in an office supply company to hear him explain what he was doing to restart the flow of credit.

After Bush spoke, one man explained to the president in an urgent tone that his $3.5 million business had just been told by his banker that it would be more expensive to roll over its $500,000 loan. The businessman told Bush he had to roll over that loan six or seven times a year to keep his company functioning. "That's how badly we need that credit," he told the president.

Moments later, when asked whether the $700 billion Wall Street bailout will work, the best Bush could tell them was, "It's the best shot we've got."

It was hardly a thundering vote of confidence.

His years of sunny optimism seem to have turned dour. He spoke as if Americans would have to hunker down and wait out the economic storm, and he sounded as powerless against it as if it were a meteorological event.

"I wish I could snap my fingers and make what happened stop but that's not the way it works," he told his audience.

"The days are dim right now for a lot of folks, but I firmly believe tomorrow's going to be brighter," Bush said at another point.

While Bush can still joke, at times the joshing is replaced with a wan smile.

"He's winding down and he's battered down," said Stu Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Report, which chronicles Washington politics and government.

Torie Clarke, an ABC News consultant and former Bush administration aide, said the president lacked the political muscle to play a larger role in the crisis.

"If it happened earlier in his administration, maybe he could play a different role," she said. "But his standing is so low, his role in this was diminished."

Bush's role was diminished just a bit more today when he signed an executive order that officially begins the transition of his administration to either Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. John McCain, the two men battling to succeed him.

The executive order creates a transitional coordinating council consisting of ranking officials from key White House agencies, including intelligence, defense, homeland security, budget, justice and other departments. Those officials will start working with the Obama and McCain camps so that whoever is elected can begin preparing to take over the reins of government on Jan. 20.

As the economic crisis built, the president made several appeals for confidence and calm in the economy, including two last week before the markets opened as his administration struggled to win approval of the massive rescue plan.

The timing of those early morning appearances was meant to reassure Wall Street and the credit markets that his administration was coming to their rescue, despite a rebellion by fellow Republicans in the House.

It was a moment of political chicken. Failure, he publicly admitted, could trigger the country's worst economic crisis since the Depression.

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