Bush Touts Good Economic News in Rare Press Conference

In a rare press conference at the White House on Tuesday, President Bush touted recent good news about the economy and defended his policies on retooling Social Security, Iraq and his stance on rogue nuclear nations.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, a new mix of old sounds from north Africa, the music of Maghreb.

First, this: President Bush held a short-notice news conference today to call on Congress to follow his leadership and to counter reports that his second-term presidency has been losing momentum. Mr. Bush's poll numbers are at a low point for his presidency. Several of his initiatives are stalled or slowed on Capitol Hill. And the conflict in Iraq has become more violent. But the president didn't flinch on any of these issues speaking to reporters today. Joining us is NPR's senior Washington editor, Ron Elving.

Ron, welcome back to the show. And what about this news conference?

RON ELVING (NPR Senior Washington Editor): Well, the president has begun to do one of these each month, usually towards the end of the month, after having been very low-visibility for press conferences in his first term. But he likes to come out and get his message across the best way he can, so he was highlighting good news on the economy, pretty good news on the job front, good news on consumer confidence. Gas prices are a little lower, although he didn't mention gas prices this morning.

And he had four things he wanted Congress to do, things like Social Security, which we've been hearing about, and a trade agreement and lower spending, and he also wants the energy bill passed. And the odds are stacked against him on three or four of those issues, but the president wanted to press ahead, wanted to tell them that this was still what he expected and what the American people expected them to do.

CHADWICK: There were 20 questions over a course of about 50 minutes, one on the situation in Iraq. Here's how Mr. Bush responded.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I believe the Iraqi government's gonna be plenty capable of dealing with them. And our job is to help train them so that they can. I was heartened to see the Iraqi government announce 40,000 Iraqi troops are well-trained enough to help secure Baghdad. That was a very positive sign.

CHADWICK: Ron, is that how people in Congress are going to be looking at the news from Iraq this week?

ELVING: There's a lot of uneasiness in Congress about Iraq. Announcing that you have 40,000 troops well-trained enough to deal with the situation is one thing, but having them actually deal with it is another. And what we've seen is a month of May that was one of the bloodiest since the war began. The death rate is up sharply: over 70 Americans in recent weeks; hundreds and hundreds of Iraqis.

The latest blow, of course, to United States prestige with respect to creating democracy and freedom in the Middle East is this report from the Amnesty International people calling our anti-terror prisons like Guantanamo Bay `a new Gulag.'

CHADWICK: Very, very sharp reaction from Mr. Bush on that.

ELVING: He said it was absurd. That was the word he used. He said anyone who would say such things would have to be someone who hated America. And he said that we had investigated all complaints made about our treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and other facilities and that our investigations had been completely transparent. So the president really had absolutely no use for this report, and Dick Cheney has had dismissive terms for it in recent hours as well.

CHADWICK: OK. Speaking of hope, the president said he's hoping to get up-or-down votes for his judicial nominees. He said he hoped he would--although he was not quite sure what to make of that bipartisan agreement that we spoke about last week on filibusters that are ended in all but, quote, "extraordinary circumstances." Here's Mr. Bush.

Pres. BUSH: I'll put a best face on it, and that is that since they're moving forward with Judge Owen, for example, and others, that extraordinary circumstances means just that, really extraordinary. I don't know what that means. I guess we're about to find out.

CHADWICK: How about that, Ron? Are we?

ELVING: Well, the president did get Priscilla Owen confirmed, and he'll get a couple of his other nominees to the appellate bench confirmed. But after that, the Democrats expect that it's one case at a time. A filibuster is still an option for them; it's still very much on the table, and that that would apply to a choice for chief justice of the Supreme Court. We may be doing that this summer. The president made clear that he had not changed his means of choosing a nominee to the Supreme Court. He will have some discussions with Congress and will listen to their opinions, but then he plans to make his own decision. No change there.

CHADWICK: How about John Bolton's nomination for UN ambassador, also a question?

ELVING: The president stands by Bolton, and he also said today he would not release the documents that the Democrats have said are their price for an up-or-down vote on Bolton. So that one's at an impasse, and we'll see who blinks first.

CHADWICK: OK. And over and over again today, he kept saying, `Social Security, Social Security.'

ELVING: Absolutely. One of the four things right at the top of the speech, the president said, `I'm still pressing ahead on Social Security. I'm like water cutting through a rock. If I have enough time, I'm gonna cut right through that rock.'

CHADWICK: NPR's senior Washington editor, Ron Elving. He's also the author of the political column Watching Washington. It runs every Monday on our Web site, npr.org.

Ron, thanks again.

ELVING: Thank you, Alex.

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