Washington President Bush, hoping to inoculate his party and his presidential legacy from election-year anger over the economy, heaped criticism on the Democratic-led Congress on Tuesday for "letting the American people down."
He said he'd consider a summer suspension of federal gasoline taxes. But he offered no new ideas for a range of economic worries now facing the country, from record gas prices and soaring food costs to rising inflation, layoffs and home foreclosures, and a credit crunch that even has sparked fears of a college student loan squeeze.
He rejected a new economic stimulus package, saying the tax rebate checks that began going out this week from a $168 billion economic aid plan adopted in February must first be given time to work. He also rejected bipartisan suggestions that the government stop filling the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve while oil costs so much, saying it involves such a tiny amount of supply that doing so wouldn't push prices down.
Instead, the president tried to shift the focus to Congress, saying he long ago sent lawmakers proposals to deal with many of the nation's economic problems, only to see them sit or be replaced with approaches that he deems unacceptable.
"Many Americans are understandably anxious about issues affecting their pocketbook," Bush said in a White House news conference, held outdoors in an unseasonably cold and windy Rose Garden. "They're looking to their elected leaders in Congress for action. Unfortunately, on many of these issues, all they're getting is delay."
Capitol Hill's Democratic leaders said Bush was to blame for proposing policies that would worsen the problem, not help, and that it was their duty to reject them.
"His call this morning for Congress to act is disingenuous at best," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said of Bush. "Whether on energy policy, the housing crisis or our many other economic woes, this administration and its Republican allies in Congress offer nothing but the same failed ideas that got us into this mess in the first place."
Bush's news conference, only his second expanded question-and-answer session with reporters this year, appeared to be a pre-emptive measure of sorts, as it came a day before the release of statistics on the nation's gross domestic product for January through March. The common definition of a recession is two consecutive quarters of declining GDP and many expect Wednesday's report to provide the first official confirmation of a slide.
With bad news piling on bad news, the president's march to the bully pulpit wasn't just about winning policy debates with lawmakers.
The economy is shaping up to be the defining issue when voters go to the polls in November. Bush doesn't want his GOP to be the punching bag that winds up on the losing end. In an Associated Press-Ipsos poll this month, just 27 percent of the people questioned about Bush's handling of the economy said they approved - his worst showing ever in the survey.
The president on Tuesday continued to resist fully embracing the term "recession" to describe the current financial picture, but came closer than he has before. He said the country is in "difficult" straits five times, that it's "tough" three times and even called the situation "sour."