Bush Holds Final News Conference Of Presidency

President Bush said he would ask Congress to release the remaining $350 billion in bailout money for Wall Street, if President-elect Barack Obama asks him to. Bush warned the incoming president that he'll face "disappointments" as president.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

President Bush appeared in the White House briefing room this morning and looked out at the reporters who'd gathered there.

(Soundbite from news conference)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We have been through a lot together.

INSKEEP: And with those words, Mr. Bush began what was billed as his final news conference as president. He was animated, he acknowledged some mistakes, and he said history will be the judge of his presidency. NPR's Cokie Roberts was listening in, and joins us now for some analysis, as she does every Monday morning. Cokie, good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I suppose we should mention that there's a reminder here that President Bush is still president of the United States. We're in the middle of this $700 billion bailout of the financial industry; the first half has been spent. He was asked if he would ask Congress for the second half, and he said no.

ROBERTS: Well, he basically said that Senator Barack Obama - President-elect Obama - that they had talked about it, and that he'd said if Obama wants him to ask for it, that it's important for it to happen on his watch, that he will do it. But he says it's essentially up to Obama.

INSKEEP: So the president will not be taking that dramatic step; he will leave it to his successor. And he spent a lot of the rest of his...

ROBERTS: Or Steve, but I wouldn't say - it could happen in tandem, with the two of them doing it.

INSKEEP: I see.

ROBERTS: Because it could happen sooner than next week.

INSKEEP: And we are still, of course, days away from the inauguration, and who knows what kind of economic news those few days will bring?

ROBERTS: Right.

INSKEEP: I suppose we should mention that a lot of this news conference was, of course, looking back at the nearly eight years now that the president has been president. And he spoke rather candidly, acknowledging a couple of mistakes.

(Soundbite of news conference)

President BUSH: Clearly, putting a Mission Accomplished on a aircraft carrier was a mistake. It sent the wrong message. We were trying to say something differently, but nevertheless it conveyed a different message. Obviously, some of my rhetoric has been a mistake. I've thought long and hard about Katrina. You know, could I have done something differently?

INSKEEP: In particular, he wondered if he should have landed in New Orleans to look around after that storm instead of flying over it and be photographed looking out the window from Air Force One. In both cases, he was concerned about messages that he'd sent, images that had been left in the public's mind.

ROBERTS: That's true. And in terms of Katrina, he said, you know, if he had landed, it would have diverted people who needed to be doing more important things than protecting him at that moment. And he came back to Katrina later, and defended federal actions, saying $121 billion has gotten in there, the school system is dramatically improving, people are moving back into their homes, but more people need to. And he said, don't tell me - somewhat animatedly - that there was no federal response, or it was too slow, when 30,000 people were pulled off their roofs right after the storm passed.

But he was reflective about mistakes. He - I thought that it was very interesting that he said that Social Security, after the 2004 election, to emphasize that was a mistake, that it should have been immigration. And clearly, the failure to do something on immigration reform is something that he takes away as a disappointment from this presidency.

INSKEEP: Cokie Roberts, as someone who has seen a number of presidents come and go, how much power do they have to shape the way they're remembered?

ROBERTS: Well, he insists that it's history that will make this decision, and he has read many, many presidential histories. He always says, they're still writing about George Washington's presidency. And he, several times today, referenced Abraham Lincoln, both in terms of the tone in Washington, the things that have disappointed him about that tone, but saying it's happened before.

But he also was reflective about the presidency itself, Steve, in talking about how Barack Obama will walk into that Oval Office and that will be a moment when he realizes the responsibility of the presidency.

But one thing I found really interesting is he said he didn't feel isolated in this job, which you've heard from other presidents. And he said, I don't think Obama will. He has a great family, and he'll be a 45-second commute from a wife and two little girls who love him dearly. He said, you know, sometimes these burdens are overstated. These are people whining, why did the - why did the economic disaster happen on my watch? He said, you know, that's not the way to do it.

INSKEEP: Cokie, thanks very much. That's NPR's Cokie Roberts, giving us analysis on this Monday morning.

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Bush Reflects On Legacy As Term Nears End

President Bush reflected on his eight years in office on Monday before the journalists who have written the first draft of history on his administration, outlining his successes and failures in a tone at once conciliatory and defensive.

In what was scheduled to be his last news conference, Bush maintained a casual, often joking, rapport with the media that has been a hallmark of his presidency. He kicked off the session by thanking journalists and making a reference to one of his most famous malapropisms, saying the reporters gathered had "sometimes 'misunderestimated' me."

Bush talked specifics about his last week in office, saying he would ask Congress to release the second $350 billion payment of bailout money if President-elect Obama wanted it.

"He hasn't asked me to make the request yet and I don't intend to make the request unless he specifically asks for it," Bush said. (After the news conference, White House press secretary Dana Perino said Obama had made a request for the money and Bush had in turn asked Congress.)

The 43rd president said he had spoken to his successor three times since the election and found Obama "a very smart and engaging guy."

But Bush spent much of the news conference on his legacy after eight years in the White House and the job that he described as "fabulous" despite his low public approval ratings.

Mistakes? He named several, but he preferred to characterize others as merely "disappointments."

"Clearly, putting 'Mission Accomplished' on an aircraft carrier was a mistake," he said of his now-infamous speech May 1, 2003, aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, in which he declared the end of combat operations in Iraq. More than five years later, the war continues.

He also conceded that "some of my rhetoric has been a mistake" and that in Iraq, finding "no weapons of mass destruction" was a disappointment.

The president said he had thought long and hard about his handling in 2005 of Hurricane Katrina but couldn't decide if things might have been done differently. He also wished he had chosen to push an overhaul of immigration laws rather than Social Security in the days after the 2004 congressional elections.

On the goal in his final year in office to accomplish the herculean task of forging a Middle East peace: "The challenge of course is always complicated by the fact that people are willing to murder to stop the advance of freedom.

"One thing about the presidency is that you can only make decisions on the information at hand," Bush said.

The president, at times raising his voice, also vigorously defended many of his administration's decisions.

With the Iraq war, "rather than accepting a status quo," he implemented the so-called surge, he said. "I decided to do something about it by sending 30,000 troops instead of withdrawing."

Bush also discussed the economy, noting, "I inherited a recession and I am ending on a recession." He was referring to the short 2001 downturn as well as current economic woes.

"The question facing a president is not when the problem started but what did you do about it when you recognized the problem?" he said. "I readily concede I chucked aside some of my free-market principles when I was told by chief economic advisers that the situation we were facing could be worse than the Great Depression."

Still, Bush said he believed the "burdens of the office" were overstated.

"You know, it's kind of like, 'Why me? Oh, the burdens, you know. Why did the financial collapse have to happen on my watch?' It's just pathetic, isn't it, self-pity? And I don't believe that President-elect Obama will be full of self-pity."

He wished Obama success.

"I'm getting off the stage," Bush said.

"I believe that it ought to be, you know, one person in the klieg lights at a time. I've had my time in the klieg lights."

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