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 at this juncture — couldn't resist taking thinly veiled shots at Obama and New York Sen. Hillary 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."
Bush singled out Castro, calling him "nothing more than an extension of what his brother (Fidel Castro) did, which was ruin an island, and imprison people because of their beliefs.
"Sitting down at the table, having your picture taken with a tyrant such as Raul Castro, for example, lends the status of the office and the status of our country to him," Bush said.
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 Rust Belt Ohio, where unemployed workers think that the Bill Clinton-era trade deal is responsible for the loss of American jobs to Mexico and Canada.
Obama and Hillary Clinton say they'd renegotiate the treaty to improve environmental and labor provisions.
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.
"Yes, I heard the talk about NAFTA," Bush said. "And the idea of just unilaterally withdrawing from a trade treaty because of trying to score political points is not good policy."
Obama, in a statement Thursday, criticized Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican front-runner, for seeking to stay the course in Iraq and conducting a failed Cuba policy.
"The American people aren't looking for tough talk about fighting for 100 years in Iraq," Obama said. "The American people aren't looking for more of a do-nothing Cuba policy that has failed to secure the release of dissidents, failed to bring democracy to the island and failed to advance freedom for 50 years, because they know we need to pursue new opportunities to achieve liberty for the Cuban people."
Clinton, campaigning in Ohio, also fired back: "President Bush criticized Senator Obama and me on NAFTA. . . . I find that highly ironic, since President Bush has turned a blind eye to all the actions by China and others to dump steel into this country. . . .
"And he has failed to act on behalf of other imports like lead-based toys and tainted food."
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 roughly $156 billion stimulus package that will give rebates of $300 to $1,200 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 9-11.
"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."
Bush is pressing Congress to update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which regulates how the government may eavesdrop on Americans in intelligence investigations. He said FISA was out of date and "did not allow us to track foreign terrorists on foreign soil quickly and effectively."
Congress rushed through a temporary revision last August, but it expired Feb. 16. Nevertheless, U.S. intelligence agencies still have the authority to conduct surveillance under FISA. Surveillance can continue for another six months, and intelligence officials can monitor new targets with the approval of the secret FISA court, and without court approval in emergencies.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives agree that FISA needs modernizing. There's wide agreement that it shouldn't apply to foreign-to-foreign communications that are routed through the United States.
But Pelosi and other Democrats object to immunity for the telecommunications companies, which Bush termed "the issue." They're working on a compromise. Bush, House Republicans and some Democrats support legislation the Senate passed that grants telecommunications companies retroactive immunity.
The American Civil Liberties Union opposes immunity. The rights group says the companies broke the law by cooperating with the administration's warrantless surveillance program and that lawsuits against them should go to court.
(Kevin G. Hall contributed to this article.)