KAUKAUNA, Wis. -- President Bush said Monday there are "some problems on the horizon" for the economy, but promised American workers during a Labor Day trip to union country that better times lie ahead.
"Even though people are hurting today - and I know they are - I'm confident with the basic underpinnings of the economy. I'm confident we can recover," Bush told several hundred unionized carpenters as he sought to make inroads with a traditionally Democratic voting bloc.
He said the economy is not "clicking on all cylinders."
The eight-hour trip to Detroit and this blue-collar Green Bay suburb reflected a new strategy to help Bush weather the political effects of an economic slowdown. He will travel to several key states this month to express sympathy with hard-bitten workers while using the budget showdown in Washington to frame his economic message.
Bush's father, former President Bush, lost his 1992 re-election bid after then-Arkansas Bill Clinton portrayed the incumbent as out of touch with middle-class workers struggling with a sour economy.
Determined to avoid his father's plight, Bush used the word concerned at least three times. Twice, he said he was worried about laid-off workers and their families. His message: I care.
"We've got some problems on the horizon. One of my jobs is not to shrink from the problems but to deal with them," Bush said. "On this Labor Day, I've got to tell you, I'm concerned about working families. I'm concerned about our economy. It's not as strong as it should be."
He said the economy has grown by a 1 percent in the past year.
"That's not good enough for America," Bush told a friendly crowd at the Northern Wisconsin Council of Carpenters before heading to Detroit to attend a Teamsters picnic, where the reception was less enthusiastic.
Some White House aides say they are concerned that using the bully pulpit to express sympathy with troubled workers could exaggerate the economic situation, lower consumer confidence, reduce consumer spending and further damage the economy.
The president and his political advisers determined this summer that he could not afford politically to play down the economic woes, aides said. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bush believes he has struck the right balance in expressing both sympathy and confidence.
Bush is courting organized labor and rank-and-file union members, hoping to drive wedges wherever possible in a key Democratic voting bloc. His schedulers carefully chose the friendliest possible audiences; the carpenter's union broke away from the Democratic-leaning AFL-CIO last year and the Teamsters have a history of supporting GOP candidates.
"It's no secret. This isn't an administration we're going to agree with all the time," said Douglas McCarron, president of the carpenters' union. "But, Mr. President, we didn't agree with the last administration all the time, either."
The Wisconsin crowd was filled with union members who cheered wildly for the president, shouted his name and thrust union hats at him to sign.
One man threw a hard hat several feet in the air for Bush to catch. A Secret Service agent lunged forward, arms extended, but Bush beat him to the catch with a two-handed grab.
The president gave the agent a wink, then started to put the helmet on the agent before thinking better of it.
At the Detroit picnic, some Teamsters joined with members of other unions to protest Bush's appearance. They carried pre-printed placards accusing Bush of hurting Social Security.
Hand-lettered posters took aim at Bush's strategy of courting unions. "We're being used," read one. A second said: "This is divide and conquer."
Bush told the crowd that some parents are having trouble feeding their children because of the bad economy. "People are hurting," he said. "People are suffering."
The Teamsters delayed their endorsement of Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore in 2000 while Bush courted union President James P. Hoffa, who was honored at a GOP convention reception.
With the help of building trades unions, the Teamsters helped Bush pass his energy package in the House on the belief that the plan will produce jobs. Still, the two part ways on several issues, including the president's push to give Mexican trucks broad access to U.S. roads.
In both cities, Bush predicted that his 10-year, $1.3 trillion tax cut, including rebates being mailed out now, will revive the economy. He accused Democratic opponents of wanting to repeal the tax cuts. As he has done many times before, Bush suggested that congressional spending is the biggest threat to the economy.
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