President Bush kicked off the unofficial start of the 2004 presidential election season Monday, promising a Labor Day crowd of union members in this battleground electoral state that he would appoint a manufacturing czar and lift a lackluster economy that has left their sector “hurting.”
As rain drenched his union jacket and cap, and with a backdrop of cranes and John Deere tractors, Bush outlined a balmier outlook for a manufacturing sector that has shed 2.4 million jobs -- most of the 2.7 million the economy as a whole has lost since he took office 2 1/2 years ago. As evidence of his resolve, he said, he has ordered Commerce Secretary Don Evans to appoint an assistant secretary whose job will be to stimulate conditions for a “strong and vibrant” manufacturing economy.
“I believe there are better days ahead for people who are working and looking for work,” Bush told a storm-soaked crowd of several hundred people at a training center here run by the International Union of Operating Engineers. “I want you to understand that I understand that Ohio manufacturers are hurting, that there’s a problem with the manufacturing sector. And I understand for a full recovery -- to make sure people can find work -- that manufacturing must do better.”
On a day that presidents, by tradition, spend with organized labor, the president was tackling the topic on which he has gotten the least support in recent polls.
This suggests White House officials believe that Democratic criticism of Bush’s economic performance cannot go unanswered. With nearly one-third of the nation’s 9.2 million unemployed losing their jobs in the last three years, Democrats say Bush has the worst economic record since the Depression administration of Herbert Hoover.
Although productivity gains brought on the end of the recession in November 2001, consumer confidence remains cautious, and former “Steel Belt” states, such as Ohio, have lagged behind states less dependent on manufacturing.
That has not been lost on the president’s advisors. The visit to Ohio on Monday marked Bush’s third trip this year to the state, which he won narrowly in 2000, 50% to 47%.
“We’re committed to helping those who’ve got a job to keep a job and for those who are looking, to find a job,” Bush said, as Labor Secretary Elaine Chao stood nearby.
The speech was labeled a policy address, rather than a political one, but among those accompanying the president was his chief political advisor, Karl Rove.
Bush’s optimistic economic message followed a Saturday radio address in which he said his $13 billion in tax cuts have begun to spur consumer spending and business investment that would lead to job growth.
Although few potential Democratic rivals have gained traction beyond the candidacy of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, political analysts say the president’s advisors are carefully seeking to ensure that they can manage a close victory in states such as Ohio.
Bush also appears keen to avoid the fate of his father, George H. W. Bush -- a popular wartime president whose reelection prospects in 1992 were scotched by the perception that he paid too little attention to the economy, analysts said.
“My sense of it is, all along, Bush has been careful not to be his father,” said Larry J. Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia. “His father was left announcing that he cared -- way too late to matter. And Bush has been saying all along that he cares. He even downplays the good news and says good news isn’t good enough.”
On CBS’ “The Early Show,” Chao sounded just such a note of cautious optimism, saying, “Obviously, the economic recovery is not as strong as we would like, but the trend lines are positive.”
By picking a union whose members helped clear ground zero and rebuild the Pentagon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Bush drew attention to his stewardship of the administration’s war on terrorism. The president congratulated the union members for “working to make sure America is prepared for any emergency.”
Union members and their families have remained a cornerstone of Democratic support, especially in uncertain economic times. But Republican candidates such as Ronald Reagan won over large blocs, in part, with a conservative social agenda, and Richfield has recently tilted increasingly toward the GOP.
That divide was apparent Monday in this leafy suburb of former farmland, halfway between Akron and Cleveland.
As the president’s motorcade entered Richfield, locals lined the road in the rain, waving from beneath umbrellas, ponchos and drenched coiffures.
One family held four one-word signs that read, in total, “We love President Bush.” An elderly couple waved two small American flags.
As the caravan passed through downtown Richfield, the supporters gave way to vocal protesters, some wearing union logos and carrying signs that read “Job thief,” “We can’t afford any more deficits” and, on one flamingo-pink placard, “Give Bush a pink slip.”
When asked why the president chose to come here, White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said: “It’s an opportunity for the president to meet with the International Operating” -- then, glancing at her notes -- “Engineers Union.”
Although “there will come a time for politics,” she said, “right now the president is focusing on his job, leading Americans, and he’s focused on helping create jobs for American workers.”
One way to do that, administration officials said, is Bush’s decision to appoint a manufacturing czar to focus on saving jobs.
Bush has not set a date by which the new Commerce Department official will be appointed, Buchan said. The president hinted that he would seek to use the post to combat unfair trade policies.
“One way to make sure the manufacturing sector does well is to send the message overseas.... We expect there to be a fair playing field when it comes to trade. See, we in America believe we can compete with anybody just so long as the rules are fair, and we intend to keep the rules fair,” he said.
There might be little the new official can do, because manufacturing workers in the United States have largely lost jobs to cheaper foreign labor, some economists said.
“It’s something the administration will have a hard time controlling,” said Nicholas Economides, professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “All the government can do is create a reasonably good environment in which innovation can occur.”