During tense times, Bush projects image of calm


WASHINGTON -- President Bush ground his way through a packed and carefully choreographed schedule yesterday, keeping publicly focused on workaday duties amid anxious speculation about indictments of top administration aides in the CIA leak investigation.

There was Bush posing for pictures by the Oval Office fireplace with his Iraq envoy and senior officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. At the same moment, a few blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue, special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald huddled with a grand jury, weighing possible criminal charges in the leak probe against Bush's closest aide, Karl Rove, and Cheney's top adviser, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr.

In his only public appearance, the president promoted his economic policies and pressed the flesh before a business audience in a hotel ballroom.

"Our economic policies have helped create jobs, growth and opportunity," Bush said during a lunchtime speech to the Washington Economic Club. "We're moving forward with an agenda to ensure that America is entrepreneurial heaven."

Bush will continue his active schedule today with a visit to Florida to survey damage from Hurricane Wilma. He'll move on to Norfolk, Va., tomorrow for a speech on the war on terrorism.

Tomorrow is also the day the grand jury term expires, though it could be extended for up to six more months. Rove, Libby and possibly other members of Bush's staff could face charges in the unmasking of a covert CIA agent, Valerie Plame, or for orchestrating a cover-up of the administration's role in exposing her identity.

Rove struck a carefree pose yesterday, smiling and saluting photographers in the White House driveway as he arrived for work. Libby, a much less visible administration figure, was spotted only briefly, shuttling with the aid of crutches for a broken foot between the White House and his office next door.

Libby's boss, the vice president, has become entangled in the inquiry after reports this week that he was the one who told Libby about Plame, the wife of a former diplomat who accused Bush of twisting intelligence about Iraq's weapons programs to justify going to war.

Cheney is not believed to be at risk of indictment, though it's unclear who at the White House - if anyone - might be accused of the crime of revealing the CIA official's identity, a charge that could be difficult to prove in court.

Bush presented an unworried face while he flitted through a day of events highlighting virtually every element of his agenda.

Meetings with his Iraq ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, and leaders from Macedonia and Ghana were chances for Bush to show he's focused on foreign policy, especially the war in Iraq.

During a closed-door session with congressional leaders and in his economic speech, Bush worked to show his commitment to spending restraint in the face of recent conservative criticism of his administration's spending.

Bush said his budget this year was the "most disciplined" proposal since Ronald Reagan was in the White House, apart from spending on defense, homeland security and government entitlements. "I'm open to a further across-the-board spending [cut], as well," he said.

And at a midmorning ceremony, Bush highlighted another of his top priorities - shielding U.S. companies from lawsuits - with the signing of a liability shield law for gun-makers.

The only thing conspicuously missing from Bush's day: any exchange with journalists. Reporters and photographers were quickly shepherded in and out of the Oval Office to observe the president's interactions with world leaders, but were left unfulfilled as they shouted questions about the leak inquiry.

Among the questions Bush ignored, according to the Associated Press: how he's asked his staff to prepare for possible indictments.

It was left to his spokesman, Scott McClellan, to deal with impatient reporters asking how the investigation was affecting the White House. He said the administration was continuing to focus on the nation's priorities.

"Those are the things that we can do something about," McClellan told reporters at a briefing. "We obviously continue to follow developments in the news. And I'm sure when the special prosecutor has more to say, he will do so at the appropriate time."

Khalilzad attended the regular midday White House briefing, giving McClellan a brief reprieve from questions about the leak investigation. Instead, the envoy gave an upbeat assessment of developments in Iraq, even suggesting that U.S. troop levels could be decreased next year.

But soon McClellan was back at his podium, putting a positive face on the mood of the White House as aides await news in the investigation.

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