WASHINGTON -- President Bush said yesterday that he wants Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney to remain in his administration until the end of his presidency, extending a job guarantee to two of the most criticized members of his administration.
Bush, in an interview, also said he was determined that sanctions imposed against North Korea must be applied, even though Pyongyang has agreed to return to six-nation nuclear disarmament talks.
In addition, Bush said he did not foresee a change in the immediate future in the number of US troops in Iraq. He said that US generals had assured him that "they've got what they can live with."
The president spoke in the Oval Office, seated in a wing chair in front of a table with a bowl of roses.
Six days before midterm elections, Bush steered questions away from politics, beyond saying he was confident that Republicans would defy the polls and hold control of the House and Senate. "I understand that the pundits have got the race over, but I don't believe it's over until everybody votes."
He declined to say whether he could work effectively with the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi of California, or the Senate minority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, if Democrats won either the House or Senate or both.
Bush also took another poke at Senator John F. Kerry, in hot water for a remark that has been criticized as a slam on US troops in Iraq. Kerry said it was a botched joke about Bush, not about the troops.
"It didn't sound like a joke to me," the president said. "More importantly, it didn't sound like a joke to the troops."
Democrats and Republicans alike have called for Rumsfeld's resignation, arguing he has mishandled the war in Iraq where more than 2,800 members of the US military have died since the US-led invasion in March 2003.
Cheney is viewed favorably by only about a third of Americans in polls.
Bush said that "both those men are doing fantastic jobs, and I strongly support them."
He said he valued Cheney's advice and judgment. "The good thing about Vice President Cheney's advice is, you don't read about it in the newspaper after he gives it," the president said.
Bush credited Rumsfeld with overseeing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while overhauling the military. "I'm pleased with the progress we're making," the president said. He replied in the affirmative when asked if he wanted Rumsfeld and Cheney to stay with him until the end.
Bush opened the interview by saying he was pleased that North Korea was returning to stalled nuclear talks. Bush did not express doubts about the intentions of Kim Jong Il, North Korea's leader.
"It's his choice," Bush said. "I would hope he is sincere." He said that any deal with North Korea would have to be verifiable.
The president said he did not accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, even though it tested an atomic bomb three weeks ago. "Our objective is to see they're not a nuclear weapons state," the president said.
Bush said Robert Joseph, US undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, and R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, will travel through the region to talk with allies.
"We're going to talk about making sure that the sanctions passed by the United Nations are effective," the president said. "Implementation of the sanctions will be on the table."
The president also expressed confidence in the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.
"I appreciate he's making hard decisions that he thinks are necessary to keep his country united and moving forward," the president said.
"I didn't find any difference of opinion when I talked to him. We both want Iraq to be able to govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself.
"We both want there to be benchmarks -- Iraqi-developed and -designed benchmarks -- that show the Iraqi people and the American people that this young democracy is making progress."
Bush said that "there's no question that October was a tough month. We lost 103 soldiers. It was a tough month because we were on the offense, the enemy was on the offense -- the enemy was trying to affect us.
"And it was a tough month because of Ramadan. . . . Our troops and Iraqi troops killed or captured over 1,500 people during this period of time," the president said.
Bush refused to comment on Cheney's assertion that a "dunk in water" of terrorist suspects was a "no-brainer" if it saved American lives.
"We don't discuss the techniques we use," Bush said.