Bush says country not headed into a recession
“We’ll see the effects of this pro-growth package,” Bush told reporters at a White House news conference, acknowledging that some lawmakers already are talking about a second stimulus package. “Why don’t we let stimulus package 1, which seemed like a good idea at the time, have a chance to kick in?”
Bush’s view of the economy was decidedly rosier than that of many economists, who say the country is nearing recession territory or may already be there. “I’m concerned about the economy,” he said. “I don’t think we’re headed to recession. But no question, we’re in a slowdown.”
The centerpiece of government efforts to brace the wobbly economy is a package Congress passed and Bush signed last month. It will rush rebates ranging from $300 to $1,200 to millions of people and give tax incentives to businesses.
On one issue particularly worrisome to American consumers, there are indications that paying $4 for a gallon of gasoline is not out of the question once the summer driving season arrives. Asked about that, Bush said “That’s interesting. I hadn’t heard that. ... I know it’s high now.”
Bush also telegraphed optimism about the U.S. dollar, which has been declining in value.
“I believe that our economy has got the fundamentals in place for us to ... grow and continue growing, more robustly hopefully than we’re growing now,” he said. “So we’re still for a strong dollar.”
Bush also used his news conference to press Congress to give telecommunications companies legal immunity for helping the government eavesdrop after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
He continued a near-daily effort to prod lawmakers into passing his version of a law to make it easier for the government to conduct domestic eavesdropping on suspected terrorists’ phone calls and e-mails. He says the country is in more danger now that a temporary surveillance law has expired.
The president and Congress are in a showdown over Bush’s demand on the immunity issue.
Bush said the companies helped the government after being told “that their assistance was legal and vital to national security.” “Allowing these lawsuits to proceed would be unfair,” he said.
More important, Bush added, “the litigation process could lead to the disclosure of information about how we conduct surveillance and it would give al-Qaida and others a roadmap as to how to avoid the surveillance.”
The Senate passed its version of the surveillance bill earlier this month, and it provides retroactive legal protection for telecommunications companies that wiretapped U.S. phone and computer lines at the government’s request and without court permission. The House version, approved in October, does not include telecom immunity.
Telecom companies face around 40 lawsuits for their alleged role in wiretapping their American customers.
Senate Democrats appeared unwilling to budge.
As Bush began speaking, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., cast the president’s position as a “tiresome campaign...to avoid accountability for the unlawful surveillance of Americans.”
“The president once again is misusing his bully pulpit,” Leahy said. “Once again they are showing they are not above fear-mongering if that’s what it takes to get their way.”
Bush criticized the Democratic presidential candidates over their attempts to disassociate themselves from the North American Free Trade Agreement, a free-trade pact between the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Bush said the deal is contributing to more and better-paying jobs for Americans.
“The idea of just unilaterally withdrawing from a trade treaty because of, you know, trying to score political points is not good policy,” he said. “It’s not good policy on the merits and it’s not good policy as a message to send to people who have in good faith signed a treaty and worked with us on a treaty.”
Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama are feuding over NAFTA as they compete for their party’s presidential nomination, as the pact is deeply unpopular with blue-collar workers. Though neither has said they were ready to pull the United States out of the agreement, both say they would use the threat of doing so to pressure Mexico to renegotiate tougher labor, environmental and enforcement provisions.
Bush fended off a question about why he has yet to replace Fran Townsend, his White House-based terrorism adviser, who announced her resignation more than three months ago. He said the job is being ably filled by her former deputy, Joel Bagnal.
On another issue, Bush said that Turkey’s offensive against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq should be limited – and should end as soon as possible. The ongoing fighting has put the United States in a touchy position, as it is close allies with both Iraq and Turkey. A long offensive along their border could jeopardize security in Iraq just as the U.S. is trying to stabilize the war-wracked country.
“The Turks need to move, move quickly, achieve their objective and get out,” he said.
On Russia, Bush said he does not know much about Dmitry Medvedev, the handpicked successor to President Vladimir Putin who is coasting to the job. Bush said it will be interesting to see who represents Russia – presumably either Medvedev or Putin – at the Group of Eight meeting later this year in Japan.
The president advised his own successor to develop a personal relationship with whomever is in charge in Moscow.
“As you know, Putin’s a straightforward, pretty tough character when it comes to his interests – well so am I,” Bush said. He said that he and Putin have “had some diplomatic head butts.”
Bush also said, however, that the pair have “a cordial enough relationship to be able to deal with common threats and opportunities, and that’s going to be important for the next president to maintain.”
Bush also defended his stance of not talking directly with leaders of adversaries such as Iran and Cuba without setting preconditions. In doing so, he offered some of his strongest criticism yet of Raul Castro, who assumed Cuba’s presidency on Sunday after his ailing brother Fidel, who ruled for decades, stepped aside.
“Sitting down at the table, having your picture taken with a tyrant such as Raul Castro, for example, lends the status of the office and the status of our country to him,” Bush said.
He said that Raul Castro is “nothing more than an extension of what his brother did, which is ruin an island.”
Following his news conference, Bush traveled to the Labor Department to meet with his economic advisers.
Afterward, he expressed confidence in the nation’s ability to weather the economic downturn.
“We’ll make it through this period just like we made it through other periods of uncertainty during my presidency,” Bush said.