Crisis demands more of Bush

Facing criticism that he has not been directly involved in solving the nation's financial crisis, President Bush left foreign leaders at the United Nations on Wednesday to deal with an uprising among Republican backbenchers in Congress.

With a $700 billion bailout of Wall Street financial institutions hanging in the balance, Bush also scuttled a quick fundraising trip to Florida to focus on getting it passed.

Unlike last week, when he canceled another fundraising trip, the president didn't just talk behind the scenes with his economic team. He went on national television to convince Americans that the expensive bailout is needed to avert a further breakdown in credit markets.

The president's decision to go directly to the people came as he faced a rebellion among conservative Republicans, who consider the bailout akin to socialism, and criticism from some Democrats for being AWOL in the debate.

"Where is President Bush?" Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., asked on the Senate floor. "President Bush has been absent from what may be the most important economic policy debate in a generation."

A day earlier, Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, a centrist Democrat who frequently works with Republicans, lamented what he called a lack of leadership from the White House. "The president of the United States is not a go-to guy," he said.

Republicans needed even more convincing. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina said the bailout bill would "socialize a whole area of the American economy."

Until Wednesday, Bush had maintained a low profile, as he has done on other issues recently to avoid interfering with Republican Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign. Bush even skipped the Republican National Convention this month to deal with Hurricane Gustav's impact on the Gulf Coast.

Last Thursday, he spoke for 90 seconds about the financial debacle from the colonnade outside the Oval Office. On Friday, he spoke for nine minutes with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke by his side. He devoted Saturday's weekly radio address to the topic and took two questions on it during an appearance with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. This week at the United Nations, he sought to calm fears among foreign leaders.

On Wednesday, however, press secretary Dana Perino cast the situation in catastrophic terms as Bush flew back from New York City. "This is a huge moment," she said. "If we don't take decisive and bold action, we could be facing financial calamity."

Bush also invited congressional leaders and presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain to a White House meeting on the crisis today.

Up to now, discussions with rank-and-file lawmakers have been left to Paulson, White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten and economic policy adviser Keith Hennessey.

"We're … listening to concerns from members and seeing where we can agree in ways that don't significantly weaken" the bill, said Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman.

Fratto likened the lobbying effort to those employed on behalf of this year's fiscal stimulus bill and last year's attempted overhaul of the immigration system. On stimulus, the president won. On immigration, he lost.

Contributing: Kathy Kiely and Sue Kirchhoff •