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Bush Promotes His Energy Plan as Good for the Bad Economy

Politics: President keeps the focus on domestic matters as a preview of next week's State of the Union speech.

January 23, 2002|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELLE, W.Va. — Carrying a message of job protection to a state where the economy is often perilous, President Bush on Tuesday touted both the White House energy program pending in Congress and the tax cut he pushed into law as vital to fighting the nation's recession.

In speeches at an airport rally and to assembly-line workers in West Virginia, Bush continued the aggressive effort he launched earlier this month to defend his domestic policies--and to lay the groundwork for the State of the Union address he will deliver Tuesday.

His energy proposal, which stresses finding new sources of energy and includes a controversial plan to explore for oil and natural gas in the Arctic Natural Wildlife Refuge, "is in the best interests of people trying to find work and the best interests of the United States of America," he said at the Cecil I. Walker Machinery Co.

Cheaper, reliable energy enables companies to create jobs, he said.

He also sought to rebut growing criticism by Democrats of the 10-year, $1.35-billion tax cut that took effect in June. Some Democrats, most notably Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), have proposed delaying or rolling back parts of the law that would benefit wealthy taxpayers later this decade.

Bush has argued that such changes would be tantamount to a tax increase, and he pressed that case Tuesday. "There is kind of a wacky theory going around Washington. It says, the more [government agencies] take in your taxes, the better off you'll be," Bush said. It doesn't make any economic sense. It doesn't make any dollars and cents. . . . If you want to encourage an economy to recover, you let people keep more of their own money."

Although Bush focused on economic issues, he reiterated his administration's commitment to the war on terrorism. "We're ready, we're steady, we're resolved and we will rout out the terrorists no matter what cave they think they can hide in, and we will bring them to justice," Bush said.

His remarks underscored the larger message he has been sending in a series of stops across the country this month: Offer reassurance that the recession can be vanquished while drawing attention to his leadership in the counterterrorism effort.

For the most part, Bush has chosen to deliver such speeches in politically potent states.

West Virginia, for instance, proved surprisingly crucial in the 2000 election. In winning the state with 52% of the vote, Bush became the first Republican presidential candidate to carry West Virginia since Ronald Reagan in 1984. And without the five electoral votes from the traditionally Democratic state, Bush would have lost the White House to Al Gore, regardless of the contested outcome in Florida.

The president's travels since the first of the year have spotlighted such political calculations. Among the states he has visited are Oregon, which Gore won narrowly in 2000, Ohio, routinely a crucial state in presidential elections, and New Hampshire, the only Northeastern state Bush won and the site of a closely watched Senate race this year.

Bush's interest in courting West Virginia was clear early last year when he made it the fourth state he visited after taking office.

On Tuesday, he paid close heed to West Virginia's perennial economic worries, promising he would propose a significant increase in funds for job training.

Although the state's unemployment rate, at 4.5%, remains below the national average of 5.8%, it lost an estimated 4,400 jobs last year. In addition, the steel industry, long an important part of West Virginia's economy, is struggling.

With an eye on the industry for which the state is best known, Bush linked increased coal production to both an improved national economy and national security.

In his speech at Yeager Airport in Charleston, W.Va., Bush said, "In order to become less dependent on foreign sources of energy, we've got to find and produce more energy at home, including coal."

He also said he believes that can be accomplished in an environmentally acceptable manner.

"I believe that we can have coal production and enhanced technologies in order to make sure the coal burns cleaner," he said. "Now, I know there are some in Washington who don't want to concede that. But they must not have much faith in the technology that's coming on line."

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