WASHINGTON -- The weight of the presidency will hit Barack Obama as soon as he enters the Oval Office, President Bush said Monday, warning the president-elect about attacks against America as well as attacks against him personally.
Speaking at his last press conference before leaving office, a reflective Bush urged Obama not to fall prey to critics and gave some rare insights into the job of the presidency and expectations for the next president.
He said that the criticism Obama will face is diminished in light of the "profound" nature of the job.
"He's going to have to do what he thinks is right. And if you don't, I don't see how you can live with yourself. I don't see how I can get back home in Texas and look in the mirror and be proud of what I see if I allowed the loud voices, the loud critics, to -- to prevent me from doing what I thought was necessary to protect this country," he said.
"On the other hand, the job is so exciting and the position so profound that the disappointments will be clearly a minority irritant," the president added.
As for threats to the nation, Bush said Obama faces serious enemies who "would like to inflict damage" on Americans and is confronted by an economy that began experiencing problems even before Bush's presidency.
"The most urgent threat that he'll have to deal with and other presidents after him will have to deal with is an attack on our homeland. You know, I wish I could report that's not the case ... and that'll be the major threat," he said.
"North Korea's still a problem. There is a debate in the intel community about how big a problem they are," Bush said, noting that he is also not certain democracy will endure in Iraq.
But Bush said he doesn't plan on sticking around and looking over Obama's shoulder to comment on how he's doing.
"When I get out of here, I am getting off the stage. I believe that there ought to be one person in the klieg lights at a time, and I've had my time in the klieg lights," he said. "I wish him all the best."
Bush said he Obama has not asked him to make a request for the second half of a $700 billion bailout package designed to shore up the financial markets. Obama is expected to make the request as early as Monday for the $350 billion needed to inject life into the foundering economy.
Bush said his administration took "extraordinary measures to deal with the frozen credit markets," and the thaw is the first step toward recovery.
"There's plenty of critics in this business. I understand that. And I thank you for giving me a chance to defend a record that I am going to continue to defend because I think it's a good, strong record," he said.
Discussing things he could have done differently or whether taking the "popular" route would have been the best course for the United States, the president said he has thought long and hard about whether he could have handled the response to Hurricane Katrina differently, but he took issue with widespread criticism about the federal response.
"Don't tell me the federal response was slow when there was 30,00 people pulled off stomrs right after the storm passed ... it's a pretty quick response," he said, adding that some things could have been done differently.
Bush also said he shouldn't have allowed a "Mission Accomplished" sign to go up on the aircraft carrier in May 2003 after major "combat operations" ended in Iraq. He said he was disappointed by the situation in Abu Ghraib and wishes that the war had borne out the intelligence claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
"I don't know if you want to call those mistakes or not, but they were -- things didn't go according to plan, let's put it that way," he said.
He added that if he had wanted to be popular in some corners of the world he could have chosen to sign on to the Kyoto global warming treaty or joined the International Criminal Court or condemned Israel for the condition of Palestinians in the Middle East. But he said that would have been antithetical to the aspirations and goals of the United States.
"I strongly disagree with the assessment that our moral standing has been damaged.
It may be damaged amongst some of the elite. But people still understand America stands for freedom; that America is a country that provides such great hope," he said.
Bush said that had he listened to critics who wanted to shut down the detention center on Guantanamo Bay, he would have risked the nation's safety.
"In terms of the decisions that I had made to protect the homeland, I wouldn't worry about popularity. What I would worry about is the Constitution of the United States and putting plans in place that makes it easier to find out what the enemy is thinking," he said. Because all these debates will matter naught if there's another attack on the homeland. The question won't be, you know, 'Were you critical of this plan or not?' The question's going to be, 'Why didn't you do something?'"
The president said that if he had listened to all the criticism he faced, he wouldn't have been able to do the job. He said he had worked well his opponents on several issues, including education reform, but in terms of criticism "the rhetoric got out of control." He advised Obama not to fall prone to excessive harshness.
"It's just pathetic isn't it? Self-pity. And I don't believe President Obama will be full of self-pity," he said, adding that he hopes the critics go easier on Obama. "We should all accept criticism, there will always be critics ... it is the great thing about democracy ... I just hope the tone is respectful."
Bush said he would like to see an end to the violence in Gaza between Israelis and Hamas by time he leaves office next week, but wants a "sustainable cease-fire" that starts with Hamas stopping its lobbing of rockets in Israel.
"I believe the choice is Hamas' to make," Bush said, adding that Egypt has to stop allowing the smuggling of weapons through tunnels at the border with Gaza. "There will not be a sustainable cease-fire if they continue firing rockets.
Asked if the latest violence will end by time he departs next Tuesday, Bush said, "I hope so."
The president repeated his argument that "Israel has a right to defend herself," but noted that the two-state solution for the Mideast, of which he was the first U.S. president to articulate, is the only way to go.
"Most Palestinians want their own state and most Israelis understand there needs to be a democracy on their boarder in order for there to be long-lasting peace," he said. The challenge, of course, has been to lay out the conditions so that a peaceful state can emerge.
In his last official question-and-answer session with the press, Bush thanked the White House press corps for their effort, even though he said they sometimes didn't give him the credit he deserved.
"Sometimes I didn't like the stories that you wrote or reported on. Sometimes you 'misunderestimated' me.But always the relationship, I have felt, has been professional, and I appreciate it," he said, deliberately botching the word that he had mistakenly used early on in his presidency.
Bush leaves office at midday Jan. 20, when Obama takes the oath and moves into the Executive Mansion.