WASHINGTON -- President Bush invited disgruntled America into his own back yard yesterday morning for an unprecedented 90-minute, televised question-and-answer session that reflected his increasingly frantic desire to get his re-election message out.
Venturing further than ever before into what he considers the "weird" new world of politicking through talk shows, the president let the CBS "This Morning" show pluck 100 tourists from a line outside the White House and invite them to have at him in a live appearance on the South Lawn.
The "studio audience," a random selection of Republicans, Democrats and independents from 26 states, played its part well, peppering Mr. Bush with polite but pointed questions about how he plans to cure the nation's ills and why he hasn't done more so far.
Typical was a man from Florida who worried about the effect of borrowing to finance a federal budget that keeps growing partly because of the interest on the debt.
"Will you be the president that was in office when the straw broke the camel's back?" he asked. "Or will you be the one that walks the 20 blocks down to Congress, puts aside all the excuses and finally does something about the deficit problem?"
Mr. Bush said he hoped to be the latter and turned his answer into a well-practiced pitch for the balanced-budget amendment that some analysts said sounded a bit canned.
Even so, the president liked the program so much he decided to linger a half-hour longer than planned.
White House strategists say it gave the president a chance to explain himself at length in a forum where his answers would not be filtered through reporters or reduced to a nine-second sound bite.
"We strongly believe the more you see of George Bush the better it is," said Torie Clarke, press secretary for the Bush-Quayle campaign.
Mr. Bush has a long history of appearing at political forums dubbed "Ask George Bush," where he fields questions from pre-screened and mostly friendly audiences.
But this was his first nationally televised exposure to what might fairly be called average Americans. Their queries confirmed the grim uneasiness about the future pollsters say is shared by most people in the country.
An American now living in Japan wanted to know how Mr. Bush squared his yearning for a traditional family lifestyle with financial demands that require both parents to work and a welfare system "that tends to break families apart."
The president responded with his own complaints about the welfare system and launched into an appeal for welfare reform.
Others asked about why local school budgets seem to get cut first, what retirees can do about a declining standard of living and what is going to become of students who graduate from college owing $70,000 in tuition loans but can't find jobs.
To most of these questions, the president said the answer was economic growth. He noted that a weak recovery is under way but added he is "bullish" on the long term.
One man invited Mr. Bush to come for lunch in his house in Asheville, N.C., and explain to his young children "what you've done for them."
"How about world peace, how about family values, about anti-crime? What we're trying to do," Mr. Bush replied. "How do you tell a little kid things aren't all bad in this great country of ours? Crazy political year where everybody points out everything that's wrong about America. I'd like to talk to them because I think they've got a great future, an optimistic future."
Mr. Bush managed to make some news during the performance by saying he hopes the Supreme Court will one day go much further than its compromise this week and permit states to ban abortion outright.