WASHINGTON (AFP) — US President George W. Bush kept silent Wednesday on battered global markets, as the White House defended huge bailouts of sinking US firms while describing the US economy in ever more sober terms.
"I can't hear what you said," Bush told a reporter as she started to ask him about government rescues of failing US financial giants like AIG, joking: "You've got to speak with a louder voice. I can't hear you. I'm old."
The vastly unpopular president, who has not held a formal press conference since July 15th or taken questions on the economy since a September 7 television interview, worries that anything he says could become fodder in the race to the November 4 elections, explained spokeswoman Dana Perino.
"I think we have to be realistic that if you guys had him in here, almost everything would be geared towards the election," she said. "He wants to make sure that this election remains fully focused on the two candidates."
Democratic White House hopeful Barack Obama and Republican rival John McCain -- Bush's preferred successor -- have been hammering away at each other over who could better manage economic turmoil that has surged in recent weeks.
The Obama campaign, which warns voters that a McCain victory means four more years of Bush-like policies, seized on the Arizona senator's diagnosis Monday that "the fundamentals of our economy are strong" despite the current crisis.
Perino has said the same in the past -- as has Bush -- but she refused to do so on Wednesday, pointing to their feud over the phrase, which was reportedly coined at the dawn of the Great Depression by then-US president Herbert Hoover.
"I recognize that this issue of strength has come into the 2008 election; I'm not going to try to get involved in it," Perino said at her daily briefing.
"I know as soon as I say something you're going to turn it around and it will be a part of the 2008 campaign, and I'm not going to play the game," she said after being asked repeatedly whether the assessment still stood.
As recently as July 31, Bush was describing the sour US economy as challenging while emphasizing: "I believe the foundations of this economy are strong."
Now, his spokeswoman -- like US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson on Monday -- said recent US economic data painted "a very mixed picture" but highlighted the "resiliency" of capital markets in the world's richest nation.
"Our country is strong enough to be able to deal with this. And we'll weather the storm and we'll be better for it," said Perino, who defended the monster bailout of insurer AIG and warned more rescues may be on the way.
"We remain concerned about other companies," she said without naming names. "What we are doing is taking this on a case-by-case basis, evaluating each one carefully."
Perino acknowledged that taxpayers may never recover their bailout money -- "that is true" -- but warned that some US companies are simply too big to be allowed to fail because they would drag down others.
"The goal has been to take action where necessary to promote stability and strength in the marketplace, so that we can prevent or limit more damage to the broader economy," she said.
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