A push for competitiveness

Bush promotes initiatives ahead of Chinese leader's visit to the U.S.

April 18, 2006|By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS | JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- President Bush, working to allay public fears about foreign competition, will promote his plan to sharpen America's economic edge during a visit today to a Maryland magnet school.

Bush's appearance in Rockville comes two days before he is to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao amid continuing tensions over trade and China's ascension as a world power.

Bush, under pressure from members of Congress to be tougher on China, is looking for ways to show he is addressing the challenge. The president has proposed spending more on basic research and math and science education, and he plans to spotlight the Rockville school as an example of what his administration is doing to keep U.S. students competitive in a global economy.

With similar stops planned this week in Alabama and California, Bush's visit to Parkland Magnet Middle School for Aerospace Technology is designed to promote his initiative, which enjoys bipartisan support but an uncertain fate in a Congress heavily focused on election-year projects.

Bush's competitiveness push is an acknowledgement, some analysts said, that his economic message of tax-cutting as an engine of growth has not resonated with voters worried about being left behind economically in an increasingly complex world.

"What people see and wear, and what touches them on their skin, says `Made in China,' so China is very present in people's minds, and they do wonder, is the United States secure on the throne?" said Ed Gresser, an analyst at the Progressive Policy Institute.

Bush is expected to discuss a range of issues with Hu, including China's $200 billion trade surplus with the United States.

During a recent economic speech, Bush highlighted his competitiveness plan and said he would pressure China to "live up to its commitments."

"We want our children to be educated so they can lead the world," Bush said. "We want them educated with the skills necessary to fill the jobs of the 21st century."

Bush is "basically saying that China isn't going to overwhelm us, that the U.S. economic prosperity of the future is not contingent exclusively, or even primarily, on Chinese good behavior; it's on the U.S. taking the steps it needs to take to put our house in order," said Jeffrey A. Bader of the Brookings Institution.

Democrats have criticized the administration about the outsourcing of American jobs, accusing Bush of aiding the demise of the U.S. manufacturing sector and being complacent about the trade practices of China and other competitors.

In a letter to Bush yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said the president "regrettably still has no coherent strategy" for dealing with China.

"Unfortunately, your administration's record of protecting our economic and trade interests in our dealings with China has been badly mishandled," the Nevada Democrat wrote.

The criticism transcends party lines. Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana are co-sponsoring a measure that would penalize countries that have a "currency imbalance" with the United States. China is widely accused of undervaluing its currency, which gives its exports favorable pricing.

Public worries about U.S. competitiveness have become more acute in recent years as international competition, long blamed for the loss of entry-level jobs in the United States, has also begun to threaten better-paying, highly skilled technology jobs.

"That has led to the realization, `Aha - this is not just about shoeless workers in Indonesia making scarves. This is about Ph.D.s from China who are extraordinarily talented,'" said Dr. William R. Brody, president of the Johns Hopkins University and a proponent of increased federal research funding.

Still, those pushing for the initiative worry that it faces long odds this year as Congress struggles with a budget deficit.

Bush requested a $343 million increase for basic research - part of a plan to double the federal commitment over a decade, he said - and $380 million for improving math and science education through training and recruiting more teachers, plus more rigorous testing and standards. The increases were part of what critics charged was a stingy budget that undercut Bush's competitiveness message; overall, the Department of Education would see a $2 billion cut, and National Institutes of Health funding of outside research would be slashed by $230 million.

"We've gotten recognition of what we need to do, but we have a very difficult budget situation in Washington," Brody said, citing Bush's proposed NIH cuts as "not a good sign."

"How it plays out in the budget is anybody's guess. It's a challenge," Brody said.

"The common refrain is: `We don't know if we're going to have enough money,'" said lobbyist John Palafoutas of AeA, an electronics trade group. Lawmakers "all believe in what we're doing. This is like Jerry Maguire: `Show me the money.'"

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the top Democrat on the panel that oversees federal research spending, said she was pleased to see Bush requesting funding for the initiative but criticized other proposed reductions.

"Cutting or eliminating vital federal programs to pay for innovation won't work," the Maryland senator said through a spokeswoman.

julie.davis@baltsun.com

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