Bush OKs Request to Seek Bailout Funds, Reflects on White House Tenure

The idea is to make the money available to the new administration shortly after Mr. Obama takes office Jan. 20. The often-controversial bailout has featured large infusions of money into financial institutions that have done little to account for it.

Mr. Obama’s fellow Democrats, who control both houses in Congress, have expressed reservations about releasing the remaining money unless stricter limits and protections are placed on how the aid is used.

To obtain access to the remaining $350 billion, the president must tell lawmakers he intends to tap the funds and Congress would have 15 days to consider the disbursement.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Mr. Obama made the request to President Bush Monday morning.

“We will continue our consultations with the president-elect’s transition team, and with Congress, on how best to proceed in accordance with the requirements of the statute,” Perino said in a statement.

The Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, has chiefly been used to give banks fresh capital so they can return to normal lending after a credit squeeze triggered by toxic mortgage-related assets.

But Mr. Obama and his fellow Democrats want more of the money to go directly to consumers struggling with a wave of home foreclosures and stricter limits to be imposed on those who receive the aid.

“The best course of action, of course, is to convince enough members of the Senate to vote positively for the request,” Mr. Bush said Monday during his final White House news conference.

While the House of Representatives is expected to consider legislation this week to add limits on how the money is used, some Senate Democrats have questioned whether that legislation could be passed quickly enough and said a letter of assurances may suffice, Reuters reported.

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd says he’s been told the Obama team will be providing “specifics” on how the money will be disbursed.

Appearing nostalgic and sometimes defiant in his last appearance in the White House briefing room, Mr. Bush gave his view of the most urgent priority facing the incoming president: the possibility of an attack on the United States. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks changed the country and shaped his presidency.

“That will be the major threat,” Mr. Bush said, putting the risk of another attack over the dire economic problems now facing the nation.

Mr. Bush also spoke of other threats posed by members of what he once referred to as an “axis of evil.” He said North Korea is “still a problem” — and that it’s important that talks on that country’s nuclear program bring about a “strong verification regime.”

“One of my concerns is that there might be a — a highly enriched uranium program,” he said. “And therefore it is really important that out of the six-party talks comes a — a strong verification regime,” Mr. Bush said of Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

He also described Iran as “still dangerous.”

The outgoing president also repeated his long-standing call for creation of a Palestinian state while urging Hamas to back off from its rocket attacks on Israel.

Asked how a cease-fire might be brought about to end the violence that has been running rampant in Gaza Strip, Mr. Bush replied that a “sustainable” cease-fire can only be possible if Hamas retreats in its efforts to launch attacks on Israel.

Mr. Bush said that “Israel has a right to defend herself.” But he also that the Jewish state must be mindful of the risk of civilian casualties.

Mr. Bush recalled the start of his own presidency, called Mr. Obama “a smart, engaging person” and said he wishes his successor all the best.

President Bush referred to the enormous weight Mr. Obama is about to experience, describing what it might feel like on Jan. 20 when, after taking the oath of office, he enters the Oval Office for the first time as president. “There’ll be a moment when the responsibility of the president lands squarely on his shoulders,” President Bush said.

As for his own presidency, Mr. Bush defended his decisions on the Iraq war, the issue that will likely define his presidency. There have been more than 4,000 U.S. deaths since the invasion and toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

He said that “not finding weapons of mass destruction was a significant disappointment.” The accusation that Saddam had and was pursuing weapons of mass destruction was his administration’s main initial justification for going to war.

Mr. Bush admitted another miscalculation: Eager to report quick progress after U.S. troops ousted Saddam Hussein five years ago, he made a victory speech in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner, a sign that turned out to be wildly optimistic.

“In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed,” he declared triumphantly May 1, 2003, from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of San Diego.

“Clearly putting `Mission Accomplished’ on an aircraft carrier was a mistake,” he said in Monday’s news conference.

The president also defended his decision in 2007 to send an additional 30,000 American troops to Iraq to knock down violence levels and stabilize life in the country.

“The question is, in the long run, ‘will this democracy survive?’, and that’s going to be a question for future presidents,” he said.

Mr. Bush also said that “some of my rhetoric” has been a mistake. He has been widely criticized for proclaiming “Bring it on!” to terrorists around the world.

On Hurricane Katrina, another top issue of his presidency, President Bush said he has “thought long and hard about Katrina — you know could I have done something differently, like land Air Force One either in New Orleans or Baton Rouge.”

But he also said he disagrees with some criticism of the federal response to the storm.

“Don’t tell me the federal response was slow when there were 30,000 people pulled off roofs right after the storm passed. … Could things been done better? Absolutely. But when I hear people say the federal response was slow, what are they going to say to those chopper drivers or the 30,000 who got pulled off the roof?” he said.

The president cited his “disappointment” with the revelations of abuses at the Abu Graib detention camp in Iraq and in never turning up weapons of mass destruction in the country.

“A disappointment, not a mistake,” he said, was failing to get three trade bills out of Congress, dealing with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.

The last previous time the president took questions from reporters in a public setting was Dec. 14 in Baghdad, a session that hurtled to the top of the headlines when Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zeidi threw his shoes at President Bush during a question-and-answer session with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Mr. Bush refused to hold a full-blown, formal news conference during the final several months of last year’s presidential campaign, fearing the questions would be mostly related to political events and wanting to stay out of GOP nominee John McCain’s campaign efforts as much as possible. But even though aides had suggested that would change after the election, he still declined to participate in a wide-ranging question-and-answer session until now, just eight days before leaving office.

Mr. Bush singled out some reporters by name who have covering him since his 2000 campaign. He also said he saw new faces in the West Wing’s Brady Press Briefing Room that signaled the turnover in the changing news business.

“Sometimes I didn’t like the stories that you wrote or reported on. Sometimes you misunderestimated me,” he said, joking about his famous habit of occasionally mangling words. “But always the relationship, I have felt, has been professional, and I appreciate it.”

The news conference, held in the White House’s press briefing room, comes as Mr. Bush has been granting a flurry of legacy-focused interviews, often with niche interviewers and news outlets as he seeks to shape the view of his presidency on his way out the door.