WASHINGTON – President Bush waded into the 2008 presidential campaign Thursday, criticizing the Democratic contenders on Iraq and free trade and chastising Sen. Barack Obama for saying he’d meet with hostile world leaders without preconditions.
At a wide-ranging news conference, Bush – despite saying he wouldn’t be dragged into the campaigns – couldn’t resist taking thinly veiled shots at Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Without naming Obama, he bristled at the Illinois senator’s vow to talk to world leaders such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, North Korean President Kim Jong Il and new Cuban President Raul Castro.
“What’s lost by embracing a tyrant who put his people in prison because of their political beliefs?” Bush said, taking a stance similar to Clinton’s. “What’s lost is it will send the wrong message. It will send a discouraging message to those who wonder whether America will continue to work for the freedom of prisoners. It will give great status to those who have suppressed human rights and dignity.”
However, concerns about human rights violations and crackdowns on freedom won’t stop Bush from attending the Olympic Games in Beijing this August.
Bush stressed the need to remain engaged with China and said he regularly talked to Chinese President Hu Jintao “about religious freedom and the importance of China’s society recognizing that if you’re allowed to worship freely, it will benefit society as a whole.”
He implicitly chided Obama and Clinton – again without naming them – for bashing the North American Free Trade Agreement on the stump in Ohio.
Bush said NAFTA had been good for the United States, responsible for some $380 billion worth of goods exported north and south of the U.S. border. He also said the deal had brought prosperity to previously run-down Mexican towns along the U.S. border and helped cut down on illegal immigration by producing jobs in Mexico.
Turning to the economy, the president again insisted that the nation isn’t heading into a recession, though he expressed concern about slowing economic growth. He said his administration had “acted robustly” on the economy, with a stimulus package that will give rebates to millions of Americans and tax incentives to businesses.
Bush urged Congress to give telecommunications companies legal immunity for helping the federal government eavesdrop on suspected terrorists after Sept. 11. “How can you listen to the enemy if the phone companies aren’t going to participate with you? And they are not going to participate if they get sued,” he said. “Let me rephrase – less likely to participate. And they’re facing billions of dollars of lawsuits, and they have a responsibility to their shareholders.”