White House Treads Lightly in Presidential Politics

There's no question President Bush has moved out of the spotlight as Americans have focused their attention on the two men campaigning to be elected the new commander in chief.

It's a common trend, not just for this president but for presidents in the past who have just a few short months before they wave goodbye to the Oval Office.

But tiptoeing can be tricky when a major crisis arises and the president is expected to reassure the public. The economy this week is a case in point.

In the past, Bush has used the phrase, "the economic fundamentals are strong," when trying to reassure Americans about the economy.

But when pressed about how strong the president felt those fundamentals were today, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino quickly caught that it was the same phrase that made a splash in the headlines when it came from the lips of Republican presidential candidate John McCain earlier this week.

pic of bush discussing the economy from the white housePlay

"I recognize that this issue of strength has come into the 2008 election; I'm not going to try to get involved in it," Perino said.

On Monday, when grim economic news was at the forefront, McCain was attacked by Democrats for his recent statements that "the fundamentals of our economy are strong."

The Arizona senator quickly tried to set the record straight later that day, saying the economy was in a "crisis." He appeared the next morning on network news outlets with the same message.

At the White House today, Perino tried to clarify the president's position, but also tried to avoid politicizing the issue.

"What I said is that we have the strength to be able to deal with this crisis in our economy," she said. "And I know that you're not asking the question in the forum of a 2008 campaign, but I know as soon as I say something you're going to turn it around and it will be a part of the 2008 campaign, and I'm not going to play the game."

Defending Billion-Dollar Moves

Although Bush hasn't spoken publicly on specific government moves to rescue some companies and let others meet their fate, Perino briefed reporters on the process of the most recent bailout, the $85 billion government loan to insurance giant AIG.

"[Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson] came in with a recommendation, and the president agreed with that recommendation, and he told Secretary Paulson and [Federal Reserve chief] Ben Bernanke to go forward and implement their plan as they saw fit," Perino said.

When pressed on the impact taxpayers will feel as a result of the government bridge loan to AIG, she explained, "I believe that Treasury thinks that they will be able to pay the taxpayers back, but it's just going to take us some time to work through this crisis."

Perino added there is a "mixed picture" when it comes to the economy and spoke of "the resiliency and the flexibility" of the market.

"We'll weather the storm and we'll be better for it," she reassured.

Since news of Lehman Brothers' demise and the sale of Merrill Lynch to Bank of America broke during the weekend, the president has stayed relatively mum in public. He gave a brief public statement on the markets Monday at a joint statement with the president of Ghana.

"I know Americans are concerned about the adjustments that are taking place in our financial markets," Bush said in the Rose Garden.  "In the short run, adjustments in the financial markets can be painful -- both for the people concerned about their investments, and for the employees of the affected firms.  In the long run, I'm confident that our capital markets are flexible and resilient, and can deal with these adjustments."

Press Corps Calls for More Coverage

The president met with Paulson, Bernanke and other members of his financial team Tuesday and was scheduled to give a statement to the press after the meeting. However, an hour before the meeting began, the White House banned cameras and reporters.

"There are times, believe it or not, when policymakers actually need to, like, work on making some policy," Perino explained today. "Everyone was very busy yesterday making sure that all the I's were dotted and T's were crossed before they moved forward with action last night.  So you didn't hear from the president yesterday. … I don't expect you'll hear from the president today on this, either."

Reporters quickly pointed out the president hasn't held a news conference since July 15.

"If you guys had him in here, almost everything would be geared towards the election, and he is cognizant of that," Perino said. 

"I mean, every time that I would think about maybe having a press conference, the news of the day would be such that we might be talking about lipstick on a pig, and the president is just not going to get involved in it," Perino said, referring to one of the most recent squabbles between the presidential campaigns mincing words.

But the press corps wouldn't take that as the last word and ABC News' Ann Compton reminded Perino that Bush's term in office doesn't end until Jan. 20, 2009, at noon.

"I grant you that it's been a while and I understand that people want to hear from the president during this time," Perino said. "You heard from him Monday and I will update you as soon as I can as to when you'll hear from him again."

After the briefing with Perino, Bush met with the president of Panama in the Oval Office. Deb Riechmann of The Associated Press attempted to ask Bush why he hasn't taken questions from the press since Aug. 6. The president didn't seem to hear her and before a follow-up could be asked, the press was herded out of the room.