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Bush Goes On Defensive About War and Economy

October 04, 2003|Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writer

MILWAUKEE — Beset by sagging job-approval ratings, President Bush turned a planned jobs-and-growth speech Friday into a lengthy defense of the Iraq war and his stewardship of the economy. He pledged to stay the course on both fronts.

In his first public comments on Thursday's interim report by chief U.S. weapons inspector David Kay, the president highlighted portions of the report that might buttress his prewar claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. He ignored Kay's conclusion that, to date, no such weapons had been found.

"A free Iraq is essential to making sure that America and the future generations of America are able to live in peace and freedom," Bush asserted.

During his 45-minute address here to small-business leaders, Bush also hailed a Labor Department report Friday that 57,000 jobs were created last month. But he did not comment directly on the continuing loss of jobs in the manufacturing sector, which saw the disappearance of 29,000 more factory positions.

In his remarks, Bush also did not mention the Justice Department's criminal investigation into allegations that his administration had leaked classified information in an apparent attempt to discredit a critic of the president's case for the Iraq war. But he decried the "partisan bickering" in Washington.

As the president flew here, White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales ordered "all White House employees" to produce by 5 p.m. EDT Tuesday certain documents related to the probe, at the request of federal investigators.

Before returning to Washington, the president also spoke at an $800,000 fund-raiser for his reelection campaign, continuing a relentless pace that will likely shatter the record for a presidential campaign -- which Bush set in 2000 when he raised about $101 million. The Bush-Cheney campaign is already halfway toward its goal of $170 million.

On the economy, the president characteristically declared his optimism, and he cited as an example the latest job-creation report. "It's the first time that's happened in seven months," he said. "Things are getting better."

The president acknowledged, however, that the manufacturing sector, including in Wisconsin, continues to face "tough sledding, tough times." Then he touted his six-point plan that he said would expedite a recovery. The plan involves cutting the cost of health insurance by allowing small businesses to pool their purchasing power; imposing limits on medical malpractice awards; adopting a national energy policy; expanding global trade; making the across-the-board tax cuts permanent; and streamlining regulations.

As he does in nearly every public speech around the country, Bush took pains to offer his view of why the economy remains sluggish. In essence, his argument is that he inherited the situation -- and that only his two across-the-board tax cuts prevented the recession from getting worse.

The president said the recession began before he assumed the presidency, and that it was worsened by the terrorist attacks. Corporate accounting scandals further weakened public confidence, he said. His explanation underscores his concern that voters may not look kindly upon his reelection bid if, a year from now, the economy remains "soggy," in the words of Treasury Secretary John W. Snow.

Despite his dropping poll numbers, Bush seemed in good spirits during his visit, sprinkling his speeches with quips.

In a series of recent polls, the president's job-approval rating has fallen to its level before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which sent his ratings soaring. Even as he spoke here, a New York Times/CBS poll reported that, by a majority of 56% to 37%, the public was uneasy about his economic agenda, and that support for his foreign policy was split, with 45% disapproving and 44% approving.

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