WASHINGTON (AP) – The White House throttled back its description of the U.S. economy on Wednesday, labeling it resilient enough to withstand some shocks to the system but refusing to say it is fundamentally sound – the phrase that has jolted the race for the presidency.

In defending the latest corporate rescue by the government, the White House put the country’s economic state in a much more measured perspective.

Press secretary Dana Perino said “it’s not clear-cut,” but rather a mixed package of up-and-down economic measures, sometimes even on the same day.

“Our economy has the strength to be able to deal with these shocks,” Perino said as financial markets were still reeling from corporate meltdowns.

The economic language that emerges from the White House is always important. It sends messages to the markets and to the masses. And it is designed to find a balance of boosting consumer confidence while also being candid enough to prevent President Bush from appearing out of touch.

When Republican presidential candidate John McCain declared Monday that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong,” it drew ridicule from Democratic opponent Barack Obama and his surrogates. McCain later said he meant that the fundamental strength of the American worker remained strong.

In fact, the phrase and variations of it long have been a favorite of Bush’s. “I believe the foundations of this economy are strong,” he said on July 31.

Given the political atmosphere, Perino declined to say whether the White House still stood by the statement.

“I recognize that this issue of ‘strength’ has come into the 2008 election,” she said. “I’m not going to try to get involved in it.”

Even when reporters asked for the president’s view of the economy regardless of the McCain-Obama race, Perino would not bite. “I know as soon as I say something you’re going to turn it around and it will be a part of the 2008 campaign,” she said. “I’m not going to play the game.”

The last few weeks have seen enough Wall Street turmoil and corporate collapses to prompt a blitz of federal interventions under Bush’s watch. It is the kind of taxpayer-supported help for the private sector that might seem at odds with Bush’s conservative, free-market economic philosophy.

But Bush and his economic advisers say the government has stepped in to keep taxpayers from facing the potential of even worse problems.

The White House on Wednesday defended the latest action, an $85 billion emergency loan for insurance giant American International Group Inc. The government gets almost an 80 percent stake in the company, the most far-reaching intervention into the private sector ever for the Federal Reserve.

AIG teetered on the edge of failure because of stresses caused by the collapse of the subprime mortgage market and the credit crunch that ensued.

“While no one would have liked to have ended up in this situation, you have a government that is willing to lead,” Perino said.

Bush however, was not willing to talk about it.

He has not fielded questions about the economic upheaval this week and even canceled a statement Tuesday. Reporters have tried each day. When one tried to press Bush in the Oval Office on Wednesday, he said he could not hear the question, and then made light of the moment by saying, “I’m old.”

The president has not held a news conference since July.

There again, Perino said, Bush is reluctant to put himself in a position to face questions about the 2008 campaign. But given all the economic developments, she allowed, “I grant you that it’s been a while, and I understand that people want to hear from the president during this time.”

In the meantime, the president’s chief spokeswoman was the one challenged about where all the government bailouts will end.

“I would be misleading you if I knew,” she said. “What we are doing is taking this on a case-by-case basis, evaluating each one carefully.”

Among those pleading for Washington’s help, for instance, is the struggling U.S. auto industry, which has suffered massive losses but remains a backbone of the economy. A bill before Congress would give the companies $25 billion in federal loans.

As for AIG, Bush agreed with the loan on Tuesday after being presented with a recommendation from Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke during a meeting of economic advisers. Perino said Bush’s role was more consultative on the matter.

Because of AIG’s size and scope, the possible failure of the company appeared to pose a greater risk than the $85 billion loan, she said. But while Perino said the terms require taxpayers to be paid back first, when asked whether taxpayers may not get their money back at all, she said, “That is true.”

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