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In crisis, president acting presidential

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - At a moment when he would otherwise be focused almost entirely on influencing the nation's decision about who succeeds him, President Bush is suddenly focused instead on doing the job himself.

With his speech last night, he was sending two messages:

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One, to Congress and the nation, about the need to act with unprecedented alacrity on the economic bailout proposal drawn up in his name - though his hand has been barely seen in its development.

And a second, to the same audience, that the coming election notwithstanding, the country has but one president at a time, and right now it is George W. Bush.

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The White House is engaged in multiple skirmishes - trying to fight the notion that the president has been AWOL in what it certainly hopes to be the final crisis of his tenure, while also seeking to win over a skeptical Congress and populace on a key point: that the extensive authority the legislation would grant the president's representatives and their successors is necessary.

When the White House began pressing to get action, "the critical thing was unleashing Paulson," Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution, said of the high-profile role taken by Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr.

Once Paulson, at the urging of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, came to believe that major action - rather than a step-by-step response - was needed, "he took the lead, and has been running with it and telling Bush what he was doing," Mann said.

The president's original schedule for yesterday had him flying to Florida to raise money for the Republican National Committee after spending 2 1/2 days in New York attending the opening of the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly.

The White House announced late Tuesday that he was instead passing up the fundraiser and returning to Washington. It was the second time in a week that presidential duties - speed bumps on the road to Jan. 20 - interfered with politics: He dispatched Vice President Dick Cheney to two fundraisers today so that Bush himself could instead meet at the White House with senior advisers on the economy.

Asked why Bush decided to deliver the speech - a rare prime-time address to the nation in the midst of the presidential campaign - White House press secretary Dana Perino used a football metaphor. It suggested, perhaps inadvertently, that the opposition was stiff.

"We are going to take the time tonight to try to get this over the goal line," she said.

The White House spokeswoman took issue with the widespread criticism that Bush has been absent as his aides wrestled with the turmoil that flowed from last year's subprime mortgage meltdown.

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Speaking with reporters aboard Air Force One as Bush returned from New York, Perino said the president or his top aides had spoken out recently about the economy on a daily basis, with the exception of Sunday.

A Rose Garden photo op with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe on Saturday turned into a brief question-and-answer session about the U.S. economy - diverting Bush from a public message intended to push for congressional approval of a free-trade pact with Colombia that is one of the president's final goals.

His mission last night was not so much to win support for a specific proposal as to persuade the country that action was needed - not just for Wall Street "but for Joe and Joanna Six-Pack," said Kenneth M. Duberstein, who was Ronald Reagan's last White House chief of staff.

"He's going to be educator-in-chief, because he has to explain to Main Street why this is important and not just a bailout for Wall Street - why it will make a difference in daily lives," Duberstein said. "The challenge he has is not selling a package but selling the importance of action."



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