WASHINGTON – Faced with a mushrooming economic crisis, President Bush dealt Friday not only with a Congress fractured over how to respond but world leaders worriedly watching the U.S. meltdown spread into their economies.
The financial crisis was a chief topic when Bush met at the White House with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and also during a phone conversation earlier in the day from French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Both leaders were intensely interested — like the U.S. markets — in whether Washington would rally on a multibillion-dollar Wall Street rescue aimed at preventing broader economic catastrophe, and made certain their support for bold action.
Bush told reporters after a session with Brown in the Oval Office that stretched to nearly two hours that the British leader had asked whether what was being considered on Capitol Hill would do the trick — and whether it would even get through.
"I told him the plan is big enough to make a difference and I believe it is going to be passed," Bush told reporters at the end of their meeting.
"Facing global turbulence, Britain supports the financial plan," said Brown. "Whatever the details, it is the right thing to do to take us through difficult circumstances."
Brown has suggested tighter global regulation to prevent a recurrence, but the White House reacted cautiously to that.
"We need a systemic solution to the immediate problem, and then we need to look at the regulations," White House press secretary Dana Perino. "There's going to be a time and a place for us to go forward."
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the president briefed Sarkozy when the French leader called, and told him he was certain a deal would be reached.
"President Sarkozy reiterated his support of President Bush during this crisis," Johndroe said. "The two leaders agreed that the world will need to engage in a dialogue to discuss how business is done in the 21st century, but that the immediate focus must be on securing congressional approval of a rescue plan."
The meeting between Bush and Brown, bringing the president together with one of Washington's greatest allies and one of the world's most influential nations, would in normal times have been the subject of intense media interest, and may even have rated a joint news conference in the East Room. But with the bailout talks providing ever-changing drama and the U.S. economy at stake, the session between two allies rated barely a blip. The leaders spoke for only a couple of minutes afterward and took no questions.
Brown extended his trip to attend the United Nation's General Assembly earlier in the week to see Bush in Washington. Both are struggling with low approval ratings, and Brown hoped that taking a visible role in tackling his country's and the world's economic woes will bring some of the shine back to his financial credentials. Brown spent 10 years as the treasury chief in the Cabinet of his predecessor, Tony Blair.
Brown, like Sarkozy, is eager to see a U.S. rescue pass to take the pressure off their own economies and wants to help in a process where he has minimal if no influence.
"We are doing everything in our power to ensure that there is stability, and that is stability for people's jobs, for people's mortgages, for people's standards of living," Brown said before leaving New York, where he held talks on Wall Street as well as with international leaders.
Neither Bush nor Brown is flush with political capital.
Bush is in his last four months in office, with popularity ratings around 30 percent and the country facing not only war but a serious financial crisis.
Brown, meanwhile, has built a reputation with the British public as a dour micromanager since taking office last June. His position at the top of Britain's economy won him praise in boom times, but the collapse of Britain's housing market and increased inflation have cost him dearly.
His popularity had sunk so low that members of his own Labour Party openly challenged his leadership early this month, fanning rumors that Brown could be removed before the next general election, due in less than two years.
The two leaders also discussed trade, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran.
The visit followed a diplomatic breakthrough involving both countries' efforts to pressure Tehran to drop its pursuit of nuclear enrichment. Russia and the United States agreed Friday to seek a new U.N. resolution calling on Iran to comply with previous demands to suspend uranium enrichment.