Bush extols cuts, surging U.S. economy

At Baltimore-area stops, president credits tax cuts as impetus for recovery

`Strong ... getting stronger'

$1 million raised at lunch for presidential campaign

December 06, 2003|By David L. Greene and David Nitkin | David L. Greene and David Nitkin,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Paying a whirlwind visit to the Baltimore area yesterday, President Bush collected $1 million more for his election campaign and proclaimed that the economy was roaring back to health, thanks mostly to tax cuts he pushed through Congress.

"The American economy is strong, and it is getting stronger," Bush said at a noontime $2,000-a-plate fund-raiser at the Hyatt Regency on the Inner Harbor. "The tax relief we passed is working for the American people."

The president's remarks reflected the administration's confidence that the economy is in sustained recovery. Less than a year before the election, Bush seems eager to highlight signs of economic vigor at a time when the troubling situation in Iraq has led some Americans to question his leadership.

After speaking to Republican donors - who filled a modest hotel ballroom and enjoyed cream of crab soup and roast beef sandwiches - Bush traveled to Home Depot's Lansdowne store to convene what aides described as a "conversation" on the economy.

On a stage in the store's garden section, Bush sat with Robert L. Nardelli, president and chief executive of Home Depot, and a handful of employees and entrepreneurs from the area. The event seemed tailored to drive home Bush's message that ordinary Americans are enjoying the fruits of a brightening economy.

"Let me ask you a question," the president said, turning to John Ferraiuolo, who manages the store. "What's your feel? You're hearing from people, when they are coming through shopping."

"I've got to tell you," Ferraiuolo replied. "Our business in this store, this year, is about 18 percent better than last year."

Bush spent nearly an hour at the Home Depot, talking up the economy with several hundred employees, some of whom snapped pictures. The president, who spends hours on his ranch clearing brush, told the workers he'd like to buy a chainsaw but unfortunately had left his credit card at home.

His three-hour stop in Maryland came as the Labor Department released figures showing that 57,000 jobs were created in November and that the unemployment rate fell slightly, from 6 percent to 5.9 percent.

For Bush, that news seemed mixed, because economists had projected that far more jobs had been created. Still, most other indicators - including productivity, retail sales and business investment - continue to point to a recovery.

`Loosening up'

At his fund-raiser, Bush said he is focusing mostly on his job and has not fully engaged in his re-election campaign - only "loosening up" for the political season. Yet he sounded every inch the politician, asking Maryland supporters to help "put up the signs" and "get on the phones and mail the letters, all reminding your fellow citizens that we have a duty to vote."

Though Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1 in Maryland, Bush told his fund-raisers that they were "laying the foundation for what is going to be a victory in the state of Maryland in 2004."

Delivering a speech he gives at Republican money-raising events across the country, the president said his administration was "meeting the tests of our time." He said it had responded boldly to a recession, successfully hunted down members of the al-Qaida network after the Sept. 11 attacks and ousted tyrannical regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.

For the moment, however, polls generally show that a majority of Americans have doubts about his management of the military occupation in Iraq. Democrats who are seeking their party's presidential nomination have attacked Bush's Iraq policy as a grave and perilous failure.

But critics have found it more difficult to discredit his economic programs as the economy has increasingly shown clear signs of recovery.

Joining Bush at the Home Depot, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat, said he is "happy the economy is better." But, he added, "We still have a long way to go with respect to jobs."

Protesters outside

Bush's third presidential visit to Baltimore was complicated by messy winter weather, which forced him to travel by motorcade from Washington instead of by helicopter as planned. The motorcade did not bring Bush within view of a downtown protest.

About 40 people stood on Light Street as he spoke inside the Hyatt, carrying signs protesting the Iraq war and Bush's focus on fund-raising, among other issues. Some used bullhorns, others their vocal cords.

Robert Price, who braved the icy weather, said he was too angry about the president's decision Thursday to remove tariffs on foreign steel to care about how cold his toes felt. Price, a mechanic at International Steel Group's Sparrows Point plant, complained that Bush's decision, which may have averted a trade war with the European Union and Asia, could hurt U.S. steelworkers.

"He wouldn't stand up to the Europeans," Price said. "What kind of Christmas are the steelworkers going to have?"

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