President Bush on Monday tried to reassure an edgy public that the economy is "pretty good" despite the dreary mix of a failing housing market, a national credit crunch and surging energy costs.
"There's definitely some storm clouds and concerns, but the underpinning is good," Bush said at a Rotary Club meeting, an informal setting chosen to show the president engaged with local communities. "We'll work our way through this period."
The nation is in a sour mood this holiday season, with consumer confidence hovering near a two-year low. As a wide-open field of candidates vies to replace Bush in the White House, the economy has zoomed to the forefront of public priorities, often ahead of Iraq.
Bush's appearance reflects the administration's push to show that the president is actively trying to solve the problems — and ready as ever to blame Congress for moving too slowly to help him.
"We've had a pretty good economic run here in the country," Bush said, citing high productivity and consistent job growth. As for the collapse of the housing market and the severe credit crunch that threaten to drag the country into a recession, Bush acknowledged "there are some challenges."
"The Congress cannot take economic vitality for granted," Bush said. "There are some positive things Congress can do to make sure that the economy continues to grow and people are working and realizing dreams, and there's some negative things they can do. And the most negative thing the Congress can do in the face of some economic uncertainty is to raise taxes on the American people."
Democratic leaders responded that Bush is in denial.
"What world is President Bush living in to be so out of touch with the economic realities families and markets are facing?" said Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, chairman of Congress' Joint Economic Committee.
No matter what the debate over economic indicators, many people are enduring financial stress and struggling to pay the mortgage. Alan Greenspan, the respected former chairman of the Federal Reserve, has agreed with other experts who see prospects for a recession at about 50-50.
"Instead of taking action, President Bush says the economy is safe and sound," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel. "Middle-class Americans and economic experts all agree on something the president still refuses to admit: the economy is struggling and families need real help."
Bush and Congress, stuck in a budget stalemate for months, have blamed each other for not acting fast enough to help families. In his comments Monday, Bush said lawmakers could help ease the burden by passing measures to expand the energy supply and make health care more flexible and affordable.
The audience of about 80 people listened with respectful silence. Yet a line that normally gets Bush applause — "I'll veto any tax increase" — drew none.
The White House, eager to put Bush in a community environment, chose the Yak-A-Doo's restaurant in a Holiday Inn (where the marquee advertised karaoke night on Wednesdays and live bands on the weekend). Inside gathered the members of the Rotary Club of Stafford, the Fredericksburg Rotary Club, the Rappahannock Rotary Club and the Fredericksburg Regional Chamber of Commerce.
To keep an authentic setting without upstaging the locals, Bush's team put up no banners or backdrop this time. Gone was the usual announcement of the president's presence over the public address system. He just seemed to show up, prompting some surprised applause.
After the meeting began with the normal business routine of the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer, Bush was introduced as the guest speaker. Yet even that was a bit hard to hear, because someone forgot to turn off the Christmas music for a couple minutes. It did not resume again until the president finished speaking and taking questions from the crowd. He headed out of the room to the tune of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."