Bush: "These Are Uncertain Times"

President Bush delivers a speech on the economy to members and guests of The Economic Club of New York Friday, March 14, 2008. AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

Trying to calm jitters about the economy, President Bush conceded on Friday that the country "obviously is going through a tough time" but expressed confidence about a rebound.

In a speech to The Economic Club of New York, Mr. Bush said this was not the first time the economy has been rattled and that he is certain that it will ride out its troubles. "These are uncertain times," he said.

The president spoke as evidence of an ailing economy piled up. The dollar fell, oil and gold hit record highs, the economy is shedding jobs, retail sales saw a big drop and the effects of a severe credit squeeze linger. Economic worries have replaced the Iraq war as the No. 1 concern of voters in this presidential election year.

Mr. Bush acknowledged that prices are up at the gas pump and grocery stores and housing values are down - leading to worries among everyday hardworking Americans. But he said low unemployment and strong productivity are proof of the economy's fundamental strength and resilience.

"Every time, this economy has bounced back better and stronger than before," Mr. Bush said.

Despite the president's confidence, one of world's largest and most venerable investment banks, Bear Stearns Cos. received a bailout Friday by the federal government and JPMorgan Chase & Co. in a surprise, last-ditch effort to save the 86-year old institution. The Federal Reserve responded swiftly to pleas from Bear Stearns that its coffers had "significantly deteriorated" within a 24-hour period.

The president also praised the work of the Federal Reserve and their vote to endorse an arrangement to bolster Bear Stearns.

"It was strong action by the Fed and they did so because some financial institutions that borrowed money to buy securities in the housing industry must now repair their balance sheets before they can make further loans," the president said.

"Today's events are fast moving, but the chairman of the Federal Reserve and the secretary of the treasury are on top of them and will take the appropriate steps to promote stability in our markets," Mr. Bush assured his audience.

"It almost seemed as if he's growing a little bit out of touch," economist Mark Zandi told CBS News correspondent Jim Axelrod.

With a mountain of distressing economic facts - 63,000 jobs lost in February, the most in five years, home foreclosures jumping 60%, and bank seizures more than doubling from the year before - Zandi says now's not the time to be hands off.

"99 percent of the time you don't want government involved in the market place," Zandi told Axelrod, "the one percent that you do want it involved, you want it there quickly and aggressively and this feels like that one percent."

The president chose American's financial center as the backdrop and the titans of finance and commerce as the audience - for his attempts to calm nerves from Wall Street to Main Street.

The Economic Club of New York is an exclusive, wealthy, largely homogenous group of top executives. Speaking before the gathering had Mr. Bush somewhat literally preaching to the choir - the 101-year-old group's new chairman is Glen Hubbard, the first head of the White House Council of Economic Advisers for Mr. Bush.

He even drew a laugh when he opened his remarks with a not-so-veiled reference to the economy's ills. "It seems like I showed up in an interesting moment, a very interesting time," Mr. Bush said.

His main message, aside from optimism, stuck to Republican economic orthodoxy: warning repeatedly against too much government intervention.

For instance, while insisting his administration has an "active plan" to deal with the problems, Mr. Bush said he opposed several measures pending on Capitol Hill. They included proposals to allocate $400 billion to purchase abandoned and foreclosed homes, to change the bankruptcy code to allow judges to adjust mortgage rates, and to artificially prop up home prices.

"It's important not to overcorrect, because when you overcorrect, you end up in a ditch," Mr. Bush said. "It's important to be steady."

He said his administration would address the crisis "in a way that respects the ingenuity of the American people, that bolsters the entrepreneurial spirit and ensures that when we make it through this rough patch, that the driving will be smooth."

Mr. Bush took a veiled shot at Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama for their criticism of trade agreements that they say put American workers at a disadvantage.

"When times are tough, it's much easier to find somebody else to blame," the president said, without mentioning either candidate by name. "Sometimes that somebody else to blame is somebody in a distant land. It's easy politics. It's easy to go around and hammer on trade."
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