WASHINGTON, D.C. With a financial rescue plan facing a tough sell on Capitol Hill, President Bush has scheduled a prime-time, televised address Wednesday night, hoping to persuade the public that the massive proposal is relevant to them and "get this over the goal line" with lawmakers.
"The president believes it is important for the American people to fully understand the depths of the crisis affecting our country, how that affects them," White House press secretary Dana Perino said in announcing the speech. "I think everyone will tune in tonight because we are facing a once-in-a-century crisis in our financial markets."
The address, to be delivered from the White House's grand East Room, is to be between 12 and 14 minutes long, Perino said. Bush last gave a prime-time address to the nation 377 days ago, on the Iraq war, when he announced a gradual reduction in U.S. forces there.
The meltdown among several financial institutions and intense negotiations with Congress over the administration's requested $700 billion bailout package led the president to return to Washington early Wednesday from a three-day stay in New York. He canceled a planned trip to Florida, where he had been scheduled to raise campaign cash for Republican candidates later in the day.
The package is meeting with deep skepticism on Capitol Hill, especially from conservatives in Bush's own party who are revolting at the high price tag and unprecedented government intervention into private markets.
Though there is agreement among lawmakers that something must be done, and done quickly, there has been fierce debate over the outlines and specifics of the plan as the administration first proposed over the weekend. White House and administration officials have warned of disaster if the debate is delayed, and Perino did so again on Wednesday.
"This is a huge moment for America and if we don't take decisive and bold action, we could be facing financial calamity," she said.
But throughout the crisis, the White House has struggled to determine how best to deploy Bush.
As the problem mushroomed over the weekend of Sept. 13, Bush generally stayed out of the limelight, letting Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke take the lead with reporters, lawmakers and the public. He even canceled a planned statement on the economy last Tuesday and remained silent for days.
Since Thursday, the president has said something publicly on the situation almost every day - albeit very briefly most times - and yet he still has had trouble breaking into the debate. News coverage has barely mentioned Bush's comments. Points that he and his White House aides have tried to make about the aim and substance of the bailout plan have been covered mostly on the periphery of the story.
The decision to pull out perhaps a president's largest available weapon - the ability to command attention on evening television screens throughout the country, from a setting with the ultimate bully-pulpit power - could be seen as a sign that the package faces still-daunting hurdles. But Perino, speaking on behalf of Bush, said it is just the opposite.
"While we've asked Congress to bite off a lot, it's not more than we can chew," she said.
Still, the White House has been trying to frame the debate in layman's terms, and that was clearly Bush's goal for his speech.
"The cold on Wall Street could infect Main Street," Perino said. "(People) are concerned about their homes, their education funds, their retirement accounts, their savings. ... I think Americans are plenty smart on this, but more informatoin is certainly better."
Earlier in New York, Bush said he believes a plan will be passed despite the furious back-and-forth.
"I am confident when it's all said and done, that there will be a robust plan," the president said.
He spoke before a meeting to discuss free trade with leaders of other Western Hemisphere nations, one the last events in his trip to attend the annual U.N. General Assembly. The president was greeted there by world leaders who themselves had many questions about the turmoil in the United States markets.
Bush put a positive spin on what those leaders were seeing take place in the U.S. political system.
"They can see our legislative process is full of give-and-take, that there's ample debate," he said.
With so many crises hitting the United States at once, the presidential race has taken a back seat and so has Bush's involvement in politics. Wednesday's Florida trip was the third time in a week that he has canceled his attendance at out-of-town fundraisers.
Last Thursday, he scrapped attendance at fundraisers in Alabama and Florida, as well as an energy event in Alabama, to stay at the White House and consult with economic advisers. He also cancelled his appearance at fundraisers in Kansas and Texas last Tuesday, but those were replaced by a trip to another part of Texas to review damage from Hurricane Ike.