I tell you the man is brilliant!

Bush: We're in a slowdown

(CNN) -- President Bush on Thursday said he does not think the country is headed into a recession, but admitted it is in a "slowdown."

President Bush is calling on Congress to take action on some key legislation. When asked if he was concerned about the economy having an effect on Republican John McCain's presidential campaign, Bush said, "I'm concerned about the economy because I'm concerned about working Americans, concerned about people who want to put money on the table and save for their kids' education."

"We've acted robustly and now it's time to see if this program will really work," he said, referring to the economic stimulus bill he recently signed into law.

The government hopes the measure, which will send most Americans tax rebate checks by May, will either prevent a recession or make one relatively brief.

The package also includes tax breaks for equipment purchases by businesses, as well as payments to disabled veterans and some senior citizens.

When asked what advice he would give to the average person facing the prospect of gas prices hitting $4 per gallon, Bush stopped the reporter and said, "What did you just say? You're predicting $4 a gallon gas?"

"That's interesting. I hadn't heard that," he said at the Thursday news conference.

Bush said Congress must make tax cuts permanent because of "economic uncertainty."

Bush also urged Congress to vote on an update to the terrorist surveillance bill, which allows the intelligence community to conduct surveillance on foreigners without a warrant.

A temporary update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act expired more than a week ago.

"The law expired, the threat to America didn't expire," the president told reporters.

Bush has been pressing Congress to pass a permanent update, arguing that its delayed passage hurts national security.

The Senate passed a bill, but members of the House have taken issue with a provision in the Senate version that grants retroactive immunity from prosecution for telecommunications companies that assisted the government in its surveillance program.

Critics said the program violated the law, and phone and Internet companies face as many as 40 lawsuits related to their participation. The House has balked at passing the immunity measure.

Bush defended telecommunications companies that helped U.S. officials monitor terrorist communications, saying it is "patently unfair" for the companies to be sued by opponents of the program.

"You can't expect phone companies to participate if they feel like they're going to be sued," he said.

The program is critical to national security, he said.

"It's in our interest because we want to know who's calling who," Bush said.

Democrats have said that the existing 1978 law gives the government all the authority it needs to carry out surveillance and that passage of the final bill can wait until the House and Senate reconcile their differences.

Both the House and Senate versions of the bill would allow U.S. intelligence to tap into phone and Internet traffic overseas without obtaining a judge's warrant, even if the calls were routed through communications centers in the United States.

The president also repeated his objection to sitting down with leaders of countries such as Iran and Cuba, nations accused of abusing human rights and stifling democracy.

The move has been an issue between Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

"It is extremely counterproductive, sends chilling messages to our allies. ... It would be a mistake," Bush said. "Having your picture taken with someone like Raul (Castro) lends the status of our country to him." Castro, brother of Fidel, is the new president of Cuba.

Bush said he intends to meet with China's president during a trip to Beijing to see the summer Olympic Games, which begin in August.

The Bush administration has accused China, a major U.S. trade partner, of human rights abuses. Bush didn't elaborate on what issues he might bring up.

When asked if Obama's recent comments about Iraq were "naive," the president was quick to shoot down the question.

"I believe Sen. Obama better stay focused on his campaign with Sen. Clinton, neither of whom has secured their party's nomination yet," he said, adding that the Republican nomination has not been decided either.

The president, who recently returned from a trip to Africa, also asked lawmakers to pass a bill that reauthorizes his emergency plan of AIDS relief. He urged the American people to be "generous and compassionate" in supporting programs to treat AIDS, and said he's pleased that a House committee has passed a bill reauthorizing the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, known as PEPFAR.

The plan has provided $15 billion since the president unveiled it in 2003. The new House proposal would greatly increase that amount.

During negotiations, House leaders reached an agreement with Bush on Wednesday to temper abstinence messages in promoting the program. The Senate is crafting its own proposal.

The president said Congress must act to approve the full funding requested for U.S. troops in Iraq.

"It seems that no matter what happens in Iraq, opponents of the war have one answer: retreat," Bush said.

"When things were going badly in Iraq a year ago, they called for withdrawal. Then we changed our strategy, launched the surge, and turned the situation around."

Bush praised the success of the surge of American troops, saying it has decreased violence, including American casualties.

The president ordered nearly 30,000 additional troops to Iraq in January 2007 to help pacify Baghdad and the surrounding provinces.