WASHINGTON -- George Bush, angry, defensive and politically vulnerable for the first time in his presidency, has come out swinging harder than ever at the Democratic congressional leaders whom he blames for all the country's ills.
"Sometimes I get this sinking feeling that the Democrats believe they can win only if times are bad," Mr. Bush told his audience at a re-election campaign fund-raiser in New York City yesterday. "They have a vested interest in seeing us fail."
The tactic was immediately dismissed by an aide to Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, as a classic diversionary maneuver to "distract attention from the fact that he doesn't have a domestic agenda and hasn't done anything about the economy."
Despite his decision last week to put off a trip to the Far East to tend to domestic affairs and polls showing his popularity in steep decline, the president did not signal any inclination to try a different approach.
He has rejected the advice of aides who wanted him to challenge Congress into working with him on measures to stimulate the economy or at least to stay in session until priority legislation is passed.
Instead, Mr. Bush's hopes for a clear end to the recession and perhaps a rebound in his job-approval rating are still pinned on interest rates, which he had encouraged the Federal Reserve Board to drop to what he now calls a "good low."
The president called yesterday on credit card lenders, many of whom are still maintaining fees at 19 percent a year or higher, to follow the lead taken on commercial and mortgage loans. "I'm convinced we'll soon see these low rates kick in and boost this sagging consumer confidence," Mr. Bush said.
But despite continuing efforts by his administration to compromise on key issues, Mr. Bush sounded yesterday as though he plans to do little more than monitor what he now expects to be a quick and unproductive end of the congressional session.
"Our agenda is still stuck in the maze, mugged by party leadership, locked into the tired, old liberal mind-set and determined to try to go one up politically," the president said.
Even as he spoke, negotiations were coming to a close on a measure to extend jobless benefits, one of the president's new priorities. Congressional leaders have also pledged to stay in session until they finish a transportation financing bill and crime package, which Mr. Bush said yesterday he didn't expect to get until January.
House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., observed of Mr. Bush: "If he has been mugged, he has been mugged by his own unwillingness to lead."
The overall anti-Congress thrust of the president's address to the $1,000-a-plate luncheon at the New York Hilton yesterday, which was expected to yield about $2 million, was similar to speeches at Texas fund-raisers last month.
But Mr. Bush's tone was decidedly more defensive, particularly on the issue of his foreign travel, which the Democrats have cited as a sign of his insufficient interest in domestic affairs.
The potency of that issue was demonstrated in two polls completed Sunday, which show the president's popularity dropping dramatically from his record highs in March, after the Persian Gulf war.
One survey, by Gallup, shows 56 percent of Americans approving of the way Mr. Bush is handling his job, compared with 36 percent disapproving and 8 percent offering no opinion. His approval rating in March was 89 percent, according to Gallup.
Meanwhile, another survey by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press suggested that if the election were held today, Mr. Bush would run about even against an undesignated Democratic candidate, though he was more popular than any of the specific Democratic contenders named.