President Bush called a White House news conference Thursday morning to accuse Democrats of setting him up to veto a bill funding the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, so they could score a cheap political victory.
But his real, unspoken, message was: Don't take me for a lame duck.
With his approval rating hovering just above 30 percent -- and even lower on Iraq, the major issue of his presidency, Mr. Bush decided to play offense.
He challenged Democrats not to expand the SCHIP program, accusing them of "putting poor children at risk so they can score political points in Washington."
He jumped on a question about the MoveOn.org ad which questioned the motives of Gen. David Petraeus and called him "General Betray Us." Mr. Bush said the ad was "disgusting" and "a sorry deal." Saying he was disappointed that more "Democrat" leaders didn't speak out strongly against the ad, the president accused them of being more afraid of irritating a "left-wing group like MoveOn.org" than of irritating the U.S. military.
Asked if recession is a now a risk, Mr. Bush professed optimism about the economy, despite the housing slump, and again pointed the finger at Congress. "I would be pessimistic if I thought Congress was going to get their way and raise taxes," he said. And he "respectfully disagreed" with Alan Greenspan's newly published assessment that the Bush administration did a poor job of restraining spending.
He dismissed concerns about lack of political progress in Iraq, saying people there are still recovering from the brutal rule of Saddam Hussein. Then, pounding his lectern, the president said, "I heard somebody say, 'Where's Mandela?' Well, Mandela's dead because Saddam Hussein killed all the Mandelas." The actual former South African president, of course, is still very much alive.
Mr. Bush flatly refused to answer questions about Israel's raid earlier this month against Syria, which is widely assumed to have some connection to North Korea. All he would say about North Korea was: "We expect them not to be proliferating."
But here's the question: Just how much political juice does George W. Bush still have? Ken Herman of Cox Newspapers, who's covered Mr. Bush since before he became governor of Texas, put it to him: "Mr. President, for Republicans seeking election next year, are you an asset or a liability?"
The president didn't hesitate.
"Strong asset," he shot back.
And there's no doubt in the minds of those who cover him that he believes it.
By Bill Plante