President attends labor union rallies; confident about economy,

Monday, September 3, 2001

Associated Press WriterKAUKAUNA, Wis. (AP) -- Surrounded by workers in hard hats, President Bush celebrated Labor Day with equal parts concern and confidence about the state of the American economy.

The president and first lady Laura Bush took a quick trip outside Washington Monday to debut the balancing act that Bush will undertake when Congress gets back to work this week.

Confronted with a shrinking budget surplus, second thoughts about his tax cut, and an economy at near standstill, Bush tried simultaneously to soothe blue-collar worries and bolster confidence in his economic agenda.

Five times Bush told carpenters' union members at a rally here that, even though unemployment statistics remain healthy, he is worried about the nation's paltry economic growth and about individual workers who have been laid off.

"I worry about the families affected. I'm concerned about the children whose dad or mom might not be able to find work right now," Bush said.

In the next breath, he repeated the word confidence five times.

"Even though people are hurting today -- and I know they are -- I'm confident in the basic underpinnings of the American economy," he said. "... I'm confident we'll recover."

Bush's morning stop at the Northern Wisconsin Council of Carpenters training center, and a later picnic with Teamsters in Detroit were the latest installments of Bush's effort to court while promising all working Americans that he will do what he can to revive the nation's economy.

International carpenters union president Doug McCarron laid bare the novelty of the occasion.

"It's no secret this isn't an administration we're going to agree with all the time," McCarron said with a nod to Bush. "But Mr. President, we didn't agree with the last administration all the time either."

Bush, who lost union voters to Al Gore by a 2-1 margin in last year's election, replied to McCarron: "Sometimes we agree. Sometimes we don't. But I tell you we'll always answer his phone. We'll always listen to what he has to say ... I'm honored to call him friend."

"Happy Labor Day, all you laborers," the president told a group of reporters as he departed the White House at early Monday.

Labor groups are key donors and organizers for Democratic candidates, but Republicans are making gains among rank-and-file union members. Bush hopes to drive wedges between the Democratic Party and its traditional union allies.

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.

"The fact that the president accepted our invitation shows that he is reaching out to labor families," said Teamsters spokesman Rob Black. The union has been aligned with both major parties, endorsing Republican Presidents Reagan and Bush in 1980, 1984 and 1988.

The carpenters union visited by Bush broke away this spring from the AFL-CIO, a major Democratic Party ally. "Our view has always been that we support elected officials who support carpenters and working families, regardless of party," said executive director Mark Reihl.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer called the president's schedule "a little bit unusual" for a Republican. "The president thinks it's important, no matter how somebody voted, to reach out and represent them."

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