Bush Pitches Bailout Plan In Prime-Time Speech

President Bush is hoping to use a prime-time address to convince the American people that his proposed $700 billion plan to bail out Wall Street is necessary. The package has run into skepticism on Wall Street because of its cost.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. President Bush addressed the nation tonight about the effort to reach an agreement with Congress on a financial rescue plan aimed at ending the Wall Street credit crisis. He emphasized the importance of approving a plan quickly.

(Soundbite of President Bush's address to the nation)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We're in the midst of a serious financial crisis, and the federal government is responding with decisive action. We boosted confidence in money market mutual funds and acted to prevent major investors from intentionally driving down stocks for their own personal gain. Most importantly, my administration is working with Congress to address the root cause behind much of the instability in our markets.

NORRIS: That was President Bush speaking at the White House this evening. I'm joined now by NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving, and also by one of NPR's economic correspondents, Adam Davidson. Welcome to both of you. And we just heard President Bush lay out the situation and invite the two presidential candidates to a bipartisan conference tomorrow. Ron, what exactly is the president trying to accomplish with tonight's speech?

RON ELVING: He was trying first and foremost to shore up public support for his administration's approach to dealing with this crisis. The support of the public has been eroding seriously day by day as people hear more from members of Congress, from critics of the plan of all kinds, all political stripes, from economists, from their neighbors, from their own family members, wondering why it's being done this way, why so much money is necessary, and why so much of that money seems to be going right back to Wall Street. So the president's trying to get people behind his idea that this is the only way that things can be saved, and that it has to be done overnight.

NORRIS: Adam, it seemed like he was laying out a financial primer. He explained how the nation got in this situation, what the White House and the administration plans to do about it. But what was the financial community looking for and hearing in this speech?

ADAM DAVIDSON: Honestly, I was picturing it like a kid who's about to borrow his dad's car for the first time, and the dad's saying, now, don't forget, you've got to fill up the gas tank, you've got to keep it clean. And the kid is not listening at all. He just wants the keys. I spent the last two weeks on Wall Street. I spent today talking to traders. They just want the money. They want the money. They need the money. So all they were looking at is, is he going to make the case, or is Congress going to bite? Is this going to happen? They need it to happen, in their minds. They want it to happen. That's all they care about.

NORRIS: Was it an effective message, though, perhaps in speaking to the public or maybe to those members of Congress that still have to approve this deal?

DAVIDSON: I think that he did connect with some of the uncertainties that some people had, and I think he probably did create a little better feeling about what will be done to deal with, for example, the executives of companies that have failed. There is a perception that they're going to fare extremely well out of all this, as indeed they have in the past. So the president was trying to deal with that and touch some of the other hot buttons that are keeping people from getting onboard for this in Congress. Members of Congress are afraid. This is an election year. November is not far away, and they're afraid that they're going to be left holding the bag two ways, both for the money and then as the public reacts negatively to this plan and looks around for a scapegoat, they're on the ballot in November.

NORRIS: Ron, the two presidential candidates have agreed to join congressional leaders at the White House tomorrow afternoon. In a joint statement this evening, John McCain and Barack Obama urged lawmakers to cooperate and reach this economic bailout agreement to avoid what's being described as economic catastrophe. Will the speech tonight help break that impasse?

ELVING: Well, it ought to help a little bit, because the Democrats have been demanding that the president get out there four square behind his own plan and not be always behind Henry Paulson, who has become the public face of this plan. And the Democrats say that the Republicans have got to pony up their share of the votes. They can't let this become the Democrats' solution to bailing out Wall Street. The Democrats want to make sure that the primary responsibility for this rests with the Republicans. But it, of course, ultimately has to be bipartisan or it's just not going to happen.

NORRIS: Adam, the president and others have said that the clock is ticking. They seem to be describing a picture word, doom is waiting at the door. How patient are the markets?

DAVIDSON: Not at all. I think that there's a feeling that they've given this crisis until Friday, maybe Sunday, to resolve. And it's dire. I mean, when I talk to people who are trading in the markets, who are living in the markets, they say it is - we don't have a lot of days, in their view, before the entire global economy seizes. It's powerful language they use.

NORRIS: Ron, very quickly. John McCain has said he suspended his campaign, is saying that no debate should take place on Friday until this is resolved. Is this likely to be taken care of tomorrow?

ELVING: I think it's going to take until at least Friday, and it'll be a real cliffhanger as to whether or not we have a debate on Friday night.

NORRIS: Thank you, Ron. That's Ron Elving. He's NPR senior Washington editor. And Adam Davidson is one of our economic correspondents. Thanks to both of you.

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