WASHINGTON - President George W. Bush Wednesday night tried to win over Americans infuriated at tossing a $700 billion lifeline to Wall Street megabuck moguls -- saying the alternative is a Depression-style "financial panic" of lost jobs, bank failures and plunging home prices.

"Our entire economy is in danger," Bush said in a rare prime-time address designed to whip up support for his beleaguered Wall Street bailout plan. "Ultimately, our country could experience a long and painful recession."

After laying low for a week, Bush reasserted his public presence in hopes of salvaging a package facing serious bipartisan resistance on Capitol Hill. And he even took the extraordinary step of inserting himself in the race to succeed him, calling presidential rivals Barack Obama and John McCain to a White House meeting today to help hash out a compromise.

With his approval ratings low, his term nearing the end, Bush appeared intent on spending what political capital he has left on a crisis that could come to define his presidency in the way 9/11, Iraq and Hurricane Katrina have -- a financial meltdown some experts say could rival the Great Depression.

He did it with an address that was part economics lesson, part a fiscal "Scared Straight" -- telling Americans, in effect, they might not like the idea of using taxpayer dollars to bail out Wall Street firms that gambled and lost on ever-riskier bets, but the alternative is far worse.

He spelled out a "a distressing scenario" -- "more banks could fail, including some in your community. The stock market would drop even more, which would reduce the value of your retirement account. The value of your home could plummet. Foreclosures would rise dramatically. ... More businesses would close their doors, and millions of Americans could lose their jobs," Bush said.

Still, the task ahead of Bush and congressional negotiators is daunting. By a wide margin, 55 percent to 31 percent, Americans say it's not the federal government's job to rescue private companies with taxpayers' dollars.

Bush laid out several broad principles he could accept in a bailout bill -- and they largely mirror some of the Democrats' key demands, including taxpayer protections and a bipartisan oversight board.

The White House's biggest concession came yesterday when Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson agreed to a cap on executive compensation -- just the kind of populist red meat that Democrats and Republicans alike want to take home to congressional districts this fall.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he remained optimistic that congressional negotiators could reach a compromise -- but said Bush must do much more to bring in conservative Republicans who have been the plan's harshest critics, with some comparing the bailout to "socialism."

"What he really has to do is roll up his sleeves and get some of the Republicans to compromise on issues like helping the homeowner, helping the taxpayer and providing real oversight," Schumer said last night.

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said he believed Bush's address would help citizens understand the bailout would help protect them as well. "I think he did a good job in laying it out and saying, 'This isn't just Wall Street. It's Main Street," King said. "The farmer in Kansas and the small business owner in Massapequa don't work on Wall Street ... but they could be victims."