Bush marks Labor Day in Md.

President pledges to keep U.S. workers competitive

He pushes tax cuts, calls dependence on foreign oil a risk to economic growth

September 05, 2006|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,Sun reporter

PINEY POINT -- President Bush marked Labor Day at a union-operated maritime training center in Southern Maryland, telling mariners that he was striving to keep U.S. workers competitive by enacting permanent tax cuts, pressing to end U.S. dependence on foreign oil and preparing workers for 21st-century jobs.

Bush pushed his economic prescription of free trade and low taxes as the best way to promote growth, sounding a theme Republicans are using to appeal to voters in this election year. But in a nod to public concerns that have persisted despite the economy's strong fundamentals, the president also said he has a plan to address a key source of anxiety: gasoline prices that analysts say have prevented people from feeling prosperous.

"Dependence on foreign oil jeopardizes our capacity to grow," Bush told an audience of a couple of hundred at the Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education, by a pier overlooking St. George's Creek. "The problem is, we get oil from some parts of the world, and they simply don't like us. And so the more dependent we are on that type of energy, the less likely it will be that we are able to compete and people have good, high-paying jobs."

Bush, who toured the 60-acre facility, a vocational training center run by shipping companies and affiliated with the Seafarers International Union, promoted the nation's 4.7 percent unemployment rate, which he called "a good sign for somebody looking for a job."

Democrats used the occasion to criticize Bush's economic policies, which they said have left Americans worse off.

"Under the Bush administration and the Republican Congress, America's working families have seen their incomes drop, and their worker protections and health care benefits come under assault," said Howard Dean, the party chairman.

Noting wage stagnation and the rising cost of gasoline and health care, Dean faulted Republicans for blocking a minimum wage increase.

"This is a war on America's families," he said in a statement.

Maryland's Democratic Party criticized Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele for accepting Bush's fundraising help but staying away from a high-profile presidential visit to the state.

"Under Bush's domestic policies, the big special interests, especially the big oil companies, are thriving at the expense of Maryland's families. Yet, Bush has told these special interests to keep funding the Ehrlich and Steele campaigns while they continue to keep the Bush-Cheney-Rove political machine of deception and middle class abandonment afloat," Derek Walker, the state party's executive director, said in a statement.

The president used his 11-minute speech to outline his energy proposals, including developing new technologies such as batteries and corn-based ethanol as gasoline alternatives, and further investment in nuclear power.

"I bet the people down in this part of the world like to drive pickups," Bush said, to chuckles from the St. Mary's County crowd. "We're going to have a battery that makes those pickups go."

Before his remarks, Bush toured the training center, a camp-like cluster of low-slung buildings set in a thickly wooded area where the Potomac River meets St. George's Creek. Its rustic feel was interrupted only by a few hulking pieces of shipping equipment that loomed over the waterfront.

The president tried his hand on a navigation simulator, taking the wheel of a mock U.S. Coast Guard cutter amid dozens of dials and digital displays to steer it out of Baltimore's Inner Harbor toward Fort McHenry. All around him, panoramic views of the harbor that were projected on the simulator's plexiglass-covered screens moved as he navigated.

"Just make sure I don't run into the wall," Bush told technicians standing by, as they increased his mock speed.

The president chose a spot in one of the fastest-growing Republican counties in the state for his Labor Day appearance, and chief political adviser Karl Rove looked on as Bush spoke briefly and spent nearly a half-hour greeting audience members. Some in attendance were clad in Coast Guard uniforms, while others wore Hawaiian shirts - the center trains the crew of the Pride of Aloha and other cruise ships - and chefs' tunics (it's also home to a state-of-the-art culinary lab).

Bush singled out the uniformed personnel, making only a glancing reference to the aggressive national security push he is making in the days leading up to the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, including in a speech in Washington today.

"Our soldiers and sailors and Coast Guard men and Marines and Air Force have got to understand this: that this country supports them in the mission; that they may hear all the political discourse going on, but the people of this country, the people of the United States of America, stand squarely behind the men and women who wear our uniform," Bush said.

The president has had a warm relationship with the seafarers union and its president, Michael Sacco. Sacco has ridden in Air Force One and sits on Bush's Export Council, a 28-member private-sector advisory committee on trade.

Yesterday Sacco, who accompanied Bush on his tour, called the president "a true friend of the U.S. Merchant Marine" and credited him with creating "thousands and thousands of jobs for the U.S.-flag fleet."

Bush has expanded the Maritime Security Program, which gives direct government payments to operators of U.S.-flag shipping vessels who agree to help the military with sealift power during a war or national emergency.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Sacco said, "we needed a strong leader, and President Bush stepped up to the plate and delivered, and continues to deliver under very, very difficult circumstances."

julie.davis@baltsun.com

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