KAUKAUNA, Wis. — With the U.S. economy slumping and Congress fired up for budget battles, President Bush on Monday tried to convince working Americans he is sensitive to their plight and doing something about it.
"On this Labor Day I've got to tell you I'm concerned about working families," Bush told members of the Council of Carpenters in this town outside Green Bay. "I'm concerned our economy is not as strong as it should be. For the past 12 months . . . growth in our economy has been anemic at best."
Waning consumer confidence, a skittish stock market and tepid growth have pushed the economy to the forefront of Bush's agenda for the autumn, a period in which he had hoped to focus on "compassionate conservatism."
Instead, he faces a weak economy, dwindling surplus and renewed debate over taxes and spending as Congress and the White House face off over the 13 appropriations bills that must be passed in the next two months to keep the government running.
Bush, who saw his father lose the White House to Bill Clinton in 1992 after being portrayed as insensitive to working Americans, plans to use the bully pulpit to empathize with the average worker and the budget debate to show that he has an economic recovery plan.
Borrowing a phrase from the Clinton campaign, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush would "focus like a laser beam" on the economy the rest of this year.
"He is very concerned about the needs of American workers to make certain the economy is strong," Fleischer said. "The president is going to listen to the needs of America's working people, and he will discuss the economic recovery package he has put in place to help get the economy going and growing again."
Bush launched the campaign to show he cares Monday, Labor Day, meeting in Wisconsin and Michigan with union members and leaders, most of whom overwhelmingly supported his opponent, former Vice President Al Gore, in the 2000 election.
But both the unions Bush will address — the Council of Carpenters and Teamsters later in Detroit — have been supportive of his proposal to drill for oil and natural gas in a small part of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"The president thinks it's important, no matter how somebody voted, to reach out and represent them," Fleischer said. "I think it's a healthy sign that a Republican president is going to work with and listen to people from across America's political spectrum."
White House aides said Bush would travel outside Washington often in September to "humanize" the debate over the budget, voice his concern about the slow economy and make the point that he has a recovery plan in place. Bush, who is hoping his $1.35 trillion, 10-year tax cut will help turn the economy around, took his argument on a test run in San Antonio last week.
And Monday he repeated the message. "Make no mistake about it, tax relief was the right thing to do at the right time," he said to applause.
Some Democrats have suggested that Congress consider suspending part of it, arguing that Bush cannot have both tax cuts and spending increases without busting the budget or dipping into the Social Security retirement system funds.
Bush claims chronic overspending is the biggest threat to U.S. economic health and says his budget protects priorities by increasing funding for education and defense.