Bush moves to quiet voters' employment fears

On road, president says he's striving to create jobs

January 22, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Hitting the road nine hours after delivering his State of the Union address, President Bush landed yesterday in hardscrabble northwestern Ohio to confront the one issue that could most endanger his re-election: job loss.

Even as the economy has stormed back from recession, far fewer jobs have been created than private economists and the Bush administration had expected. Now, Democrats are pounding the president, offering the almost daily refrain that America has lost more than 2 million jobs on his watch - the worst record for a president since the Great Depression.

Overall, Bush's public approval ratings remain strong for an incumbent president at this time in his re-election year. But polls show that Americans increasingly trust Democrats more than they do the president to manage the economy. A sizable minority of Americans believe (incorrectly) that the nation is still mired in a recession.

In his speech Tuesday night, Bush seemed determined to convey to voters skeptical of his handling of domestic issues that he is responding forcefully to their worries about unemployment, health insurance, prescription drug costs and drug abuse in public schools.

The morning before Bush spoke, an ABC News/Washington Post poll revealed some discouraging news for Bush. Asked whether the president "understands the problems of people like you," 56 percent of Americans said no, up from 48 percent in May.

Tone of empathy

Visiting a community college outside Toledo yesterday, Bush tried to project an empathetic tone and to suggest to voters that he knows their struggles and is working hard to help.

"I fully recognize, in Ohio, there are still troubled times," the president told an audience in a state that has bled jobs as its manufacturing base has shrunk. The state's jobless rate has surged from 3.9 percent to 5.7 percent during Bush's three years in office.

"The manufacturing here is sluggish at best, and therefore, people are looking for work," Bush said. "People who could rely upon a steady job in the manufacturing sector are hoping to be able to realize their hopes by finding work elsewhere."

The president then made a sustained effort to assert that many of the policies he has championed - whether they appear to relate to the economy or not - will have the effect of protecting jobs.

For example, he said, the "No Child Left Behind" education law he pushed through Congress can help generate employment because "the first stage to make sure workers are trained is to make sure our public education system does its job."

He also suggested that job creation would be a byproduct of his energy bill, now stalled in Congress, because "it is hard to keep people working when your energy bills are going out of sight."

Then Bush said his proposal to limit medical liability damages would help create jobs. His argument: If medical malpractice lawsuits are not reined in, enormous settlements will drive doctors out of business.

"And that affects the ability for employers to keep people working," the president said, without elaborating.

Grants for training

Bush also touted an initiative he introduced in his State of the Union speech that would allocate grants to community colleges to help train workers for employment in technology or other high-growth sectors.

The program, the projected cost of which is a fairly modest $500 million, seemed to be a way for Bush to portray himself as deeply engaged in efforts to stimulate job creation.

For example, about $33 million for the new program would be funded through Pell education grants. A senior administration official acknowledged that the new money for Bush's jobs program is meager compared with the $12 billion in existing Pell grants that the federal government now offers.

"It's a very small percentage," the official said.

Aides to Bush described the program as an effective way to fill jobs that have remained open because they are in high-tech sectors, demanding skills that employees who have lost manufacturing jobs might lack.

As Bush tried to sell his plans yesterday, Democrats continued to attack him over the lackluster job market. The House Democratic whip, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, said he is "sure Ohioans would like to ask, `Mr. President, what is your plan for job creation?' The fact of the matter is the president has none."

Hoyer continued: "America has lost 2.3 million jobs in three years. That is the worst record of any president since Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression."

From New Hampshire, Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat and presidential contender, argued after Bush's speech Tuesday that the administration failed to deliver on a prediction it had made, based on economists' projections, that 100,000 to 200,000 jobs would be created in December.

Instead, the Labor Department reported that only 1,000 jobs were created that month.

"This president still doesn't understand what's happening in living rooms across this country," Kerry said.

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