WASHINGTON (AFP) — President George W. Bush said Tuesday he sees "a very slow economy" but sidestepped questions about whether he believes a recession is at hand.
At a White House news conference, Bush cautioned of "very difficult economic times," while arguing for the need to extend tax cuts to help stimulate activity.
The president also rejected the notion of stopping purchases or tapping the US strategic oil reserve, saying the action would not affect prices.
Bush said he had not been briefed on the initial estimate for first quarter gross domestic product (GDP) due to be released Wednesday.
"I think (the report) will show that it's a very slow economy. I can't guess what the number will be," he said.
Analysts on average were expecting the Commerce Department report to show a slow 0.5 percent expansion pace, but some say the figure could be negative, reflecting a likely recession in the world's biggest economy.
Bush declined to say whether he believed a recession has begun or is coming. Most economists define a recession as two quarters of declining economic activity.
"I will tell you these are very difficult economic times," he said. "Very difficult and we'll let the economists define it for what it is. I would hope that those who worry about recession, slowdown, whatever you want to call it, make the tax cuts permanent as a way of helping to address this issue."
He said Congress should act to help expand energy production including in Alaska, and maintain low taxes as a way to stimulate demand.
"You know, the words on how to define the economy don't reflect the anxiety the American people feel," he said.
"The average person doesn't really care what we call it. The average person wants to know whether or not we know that they're paying higher gasoline prices and they're worried about staying in their homes."
Bush meanwhile brushed aside calls to stop filling the Strategic Petroleum Reserve as part of an effort to ease pressure on energy costs.
"If I thought it would affect the price of oil positively, I would seriously consider it, but when you are talking about one-tenth of one percent of global demand, in the cost-benefit analysis, you do not get any benefits and I think it costs you oil in the case of a national security risk," Bush told reporters.
His comments came as oil futures hovered near record levels near 120 dollars a barrel.
"I don't think that's going to affect price when you affect 0.1 percent," Bush said.
"And I do believe it is in our national interest to get the (reserve) filled, in case there is a major disruption of crude oil around the world."
The Strategic Petroleum Reserve, created in 1974, keeps hundreds of millions barrels of oil stored in underground salt caverns on the Texas and Louisiana coasts.
Reacting to the comments, Democratic House majority leader Steny Hoyer said Bush's comments "clearly demonstrate why his popularity is at record lows in national polls now, and why his administration will be viewed by historians as a failure."
Hoyer said: "This morning all he tried to do is pass the buck to someone else rather than accept responsibility for his administration's failed economic policies and escalating gas prices."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Democrats in Congress are willing to work with the White House but urged Bush to take action on the petroleum reserve, allow tax credits for renewable energy and take further action to help a wave of homeowners facing foreclosure.
She said the president was too focused on free-trade deals while the domestic economic is hurting.
"For weeks now, Democrats have asked for the White House to sit down with us and find consensus on how to help the American economy and American families -- before another trade deal is ratified," Pelosi said. "We renew that call today."
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