RICHFIELD, Ohio — President Bush announced Monday he is creating a high-level government post to nurture the manufacturing sector, which is bleeding jobs in states crucial to his re-election.
On a rain-soaked Labor Day trip to a factory training center, Bush said he had directed Commerce Secretary Don Evans to establish an assistant position to focus "on the needs of manufacturers." Keeping factory jobs is critical to a broader economic recovery, the president said, his outdoor venue ringed by cranes, backhoes and bulldozers.
Bush said the nation has lost "thousands of jobs in manufacturing." In fact, the losses have soared into the millions: Of the 2.7 million jobs the U.S. economy has lost since the recession began in early 2001, 2.4 million were in manufacturing. The downturn has eliminated more than one in 10 of the nation's factory jobs.
The president attributed the erosion to productivity gains and to jobs flowing to cheaper labor markets overseas. He suggested that jobs moving to foreign shores was his primary reason for creating the new manufacturing czar.
"One way to make sure that the manufacturing sector does well is to send a message overseas, (to) say, look, we expect there to be a fair playing field when it comes to trade," Bush said.
"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," Bush said, his audience of workers and supporters cheering.
Bush administration officials believe one way to spark the economy and deal with the bloated trade deficit is for other countries to remove trade barriers. That would allow U.S. companies to more freely do business in overseas markets, boosting America's global competitiveness. The nation's trade deficit ran at an annual rate of $488.5 billion for the first six months of this year, heading for another record.
Congress approved trade pacts with Singapore and Chile earlier this year, and Bush plans to sign both on Wednesday. The administration says it now is striving for an agreement for all of Central America.
Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri said "bad trade deals" such as NAFTA were driving American jobs abroad.
He promised a "trade and manufacturing policy that will put an end to the hemorrhaging of manufacturing jobs and keep good paying jobs in this country for our workers."
Bush did not name the new manufacturing official, and gave no timetable for offering a nomination to the Senate. Nor did he specify what duties the new post would include. Commerce Department officials said they are still ironing out the new hierarchy; Assistant secretaries are generally the fourth echelon of Cabinet-level departments, beneath secretary, deputy secretary and undersecretary.
Bush spent most of his speech expressing empathy for anxious workers, and wiping rain from his head, which became thoroughly drenched despite his union hat.
"I want you to understand that I understand that Ohio manufacturers are hurting, that there's a problem with the manufacturing sector," Bush said. "I understand that for a full recovery, to make sure people can find work, that manufacturing must do better," Bush said.
Ohio lost 185,000 jobs during the recession from 2001 through last March, nearly two-thirds in manufacturing, according to a study released Sunday by a private economic think tank.
Politics loomed large in Bush's 11th trip to Ohio — a state he carried in 2000, and one where he also spent the July Fourth holiday.
Monday, Bush brought along his chief political adviser, Karl Rove, for the half-day trip to address the International Union of Operating Engineers, which represents 400,000 construction and maintenance workers in the United States and Canada.
Bush has tried to woo some trade and industrial unions, which tend to be more conservative than public and service sector unions. The Operating Engineers union is among the largest labor donors to Republicans, contributing 16 percent of its $1.3 million to the GOP in 2002, and its president, Frank Hanley, has appeared at several previous events with Bush.
The White House chose politically friendly territory for the event. Although surrounding communities tilt Democrat, Richfield leans Republican. Bush's motorcade route took him along stately homes in an affluent neighborhood, and clusters of supporters waved signs backing the president.
His crowd applauded when Bush argued that two rounds of tax cuts had kept the recession shallow and had helped spur factory jobs.
Democrats said the tax cuts have gone to the wealthiest taxpayers and have sent the deficit spiraling to $480 billion for next year, while doing little to jump-start the economy.
"Nearly 9 million Americans will have no job to return to after their three-day weekend," said Democratic contender Howard Dean. "We need a president who is creating jobs, instead of losing more jobs than any president has since the Great Depression."
The Labor Day trip marked Bush's first public appearance since he returned Saturday from a monthlong stay on his ranch in Crawford, Texas. It kicks off a burst of heavy travel in the 15 months leading up to Election Day.
Bush still had Crawford on his mind as he addressed the operating engineers.
"We need a little rain in Crawford," he told an audience shielding itself with rain slickers and garbage bags. "Send it that way, if you don't mind."