President Bush came to the home of Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and other attractions Tuesday to buck up Florida's sagging tourism industry--and to shield himself from any public perception that he is focusing on the war against terrorism at the expense of America's troubled economy.
"There's nothing that hurts me more than to know, as we head into the holiday season, that some of our citizens and some of their families hurt because they have been laid off as a result of 9-11," he said, referring to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Moments later, Bush declared: "Air travel is getting safer and safer and safer."
The president seemed relaxed as he prowled the stage of the Orange County Convention Center during a 50-minute town hall meeting, easily fielding 19 questions as he alternately commiserated with laid-off workers, defended the establishment of secret military tribunals to try suspected foreign terrorists, basked in the adulation of the crowd and even joked about his mother's cooking.
Throughout, Bush exuded confidence, as well as a folksy demeanor that had the 4,000 members of the audience rocking with laughter.
At one point, he broke the format by posing a question of his own and then discussing the military tribunals, which have raised an outcry from civil libertarians on the political right and the left.
"What happens if, in the course of this war, that we apprehend or capture an enemy, and we want to bring him to justice? And in the course of bringing him to justice, what if the information necessary to bring him to justice would compromise our capacity to keep America safe?" Bush asked.
"In the court of law, there would be all kinds of questions that might compromise our ability to gather incredibly important intelligence to prevent the next attack from happening to America. It seems like, to me, that the president of the United States ought to have the option to protect the national security interests of the country and therefore protect America from further attack," Bush said as the throng jumped to its feet, cheering and applauding.
He also brought up--and defended--efforts by law enforcement to question 5,000 men from various Arab countries about their knowledge of terrorists.
"We're asking those who are here, as guests enjoying our freedom, to voluntarily participate in helping us understand how best to protect the country," Bush said. "Nobody's being forced into an interview."
At several points, Bush gave detailed answers about government programs and his proposals to help working families and small businesses. He also called on the Democratic-controlled Senate to pass his energy bill and an economic stimulus package and on the Republican-dominated House to enact legislation granting him trade promotion authority.
When one small-business man complained about federal red tape, Bush summoned an aide to gather more details from the man and fumed, almost as an aside: "I can't stand bureaucracy."
But he quickly caught himself, adding that he "appreciated the hard-working people who care enough to work for the government. . . . But what I don't like is systems that get so cumbersome that those who are trying to help you don't get the product out."
When a small girl shyly asked to shake his hand, Bush did her one better. He met her halfway and kissed her on the cheek.
The president also renewed his pitch for religious tolerance, referring at one point to two "women of cover" on the stage and thanking them for "coming from the Muslim community here in America."
The presidential line that brought the house down came when a questioner asked about family togetherness and the importance of a sharing supper together.
Bush endorsed the idea, and then said, "I did eat with my family--so long as my mother wasn't cooking."
Turning to the television cameras, he added:
"Wait a minute. Just kidding, Mom. She was one of the great fast-food cooks of all time. Just kidding, Mom. We ate a lot together. We did."
The White House wanted no one to doubt why Bush was here--to demonstrate his awareness of the recession and his concern for those who have lost their jobs as travel to nearby Disney World and other Florida attractions slumped.
To drive home that point, White House aides erected a huge banner, complete with the presidential seal, as a backdrop. "Fighting For America's Workers," it read.
During the question-and-answer period--his first true town hall meeting as president--Bush also provided more details about his initial reaction to the terrorist attacks on America, which occurred during his last visit to Florida, to promote literacy.
Bush told the audience that as he silently contemplated the attacks, he resolved: "There would be hell to pay for attacking America."
The president's efforts to spotlight his concern for the plight of American workers, amid rising unemployment rates and growing budget deficits, underscored his keen awareness that his father's failure to communicate his sympathy for the plight of workers cost him his reelection in 1992.
Tuesday was Bush's fifth visit as president to Florida, a highly competitive state in presidential elections.
But White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer insisted that the president chose to visit this state not for political reasons but because, as he put it, "Florida's tourism industry has been particularly hard hit as a result of the attack on the 11th."
Before attending the town hall meeting, Bush was accompanied by his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, as he toured the state's newest Operation Paycheck One-Stop Center, part of a federal-state program that helps laid-off workers obtain new job skills.
At the center, Bush told the unemployed: "I hurt that, coming into the holiday season, you're not working. But I admire your courage for going out to try to improve yourselves so you can find jobs around here."
A significant number of workers in the program are from the service sector, including tourism and aviation, both of which experienced severe layoffs in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Many were also among the audience at the convention center.