By Deb Riechmann
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON - The nation celebrates Labor Day this year with an estimated 9 million Americans on the unemployment rolls - 700,000 more than last year, when President Bush went to a union workers picnic and said he was encouraged about job growth, but "not satisfied."
This year, the president is marking Labor Day in Richfield, Ohio, where he will address members of the International Union of Operating Engineers and their families. Later in the week, Bush is to give economic speeches in Kansas City, Mo., and Indianapolis.
In north-central Ohio, the president planned to push his agenda to create jobs.
The nation's unemployment rate hit a nine-year high of 6.4 percent in June but then edged down to 6.2 percent in July, a possible signal that the economy may be on a comeback. That improvement, however, partly reflected the fact that 500,000 discouraged workers gave up looking for a job and left the labor market.
The economy grew at a solid 3.1 percent annual rate in the second quarter of the year, a better performance than the government thought just a month ago. Consumers ratcheted up their spending in July by the largest amount in four months. And manufacturers saw demand for big-ticket products rise for the second straight month in July.
"Now we must build on this progress and make sure that the economy creates enough new jobs for American workers," Bush said in his weekend radio address.
2.7 million net jobs lost
While labor leaders acknowledge some positive economic reports, they also point to the nation's 6.2 percent unemployment rate in July and the 2.7 million net jobs that have been lost in the economy since the recession began in March 2001.
"The single most important issue on the minds of Ohioans right now is the economy," Denny White, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, said in a letter to Bush last week. "Your failed economic policies have had a devastating effect on our state. Since you took office in January of 2001, Ohio has lost 137,200 jobs. The unemployment rate in Ohio has gone from 4.0 to 6.3 percent, with 7,900 jobs lost just this year."
Bush insists his tax cuts will provide the stimulus necessary to rev up the economy. But Democrats say the tax cuts passed by Congress have gone to the wealthiest taxpayers and have sent the deficit soaring to $480 billion for next year, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
"The president's economic strategy of tax cuts to the wealthiest 1 percent combined with an aggressive foreign policy will make it impossible for our economy to recover and will lead to continued cuts in important domestic needs," said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination. "Of all days to use Ohio as a political backdrop, the president - no friend of working people - has chosen Labor Day. I hope his tour of the state will include the empty factories and bankrupt corporations."
Ohio a battleground
Labor Day, officially designated by President Cleveland in 1894, also is the day when voters tend to start paying closer attention to the upcoming presidential race. With 15 months to go to the election, polls show voters are far more concerned about the economy than Iraq or terrorism.
"Ohio? That's a battleground state if there ever was one. He barely won it," says Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, Al Gore's campaign manager in 2002. (Bush garnered 50 percent of the Ohio vote in 2000 to Gore's 47 percent.)
The Bush-Cheney campaign "has to go out there and make an appeal to voters based on their strengths," Brazile said, "and right now, the only strength is national security because on the other issues - the economy and some domestic issues - they're quite vulnerable."
On Labor Day 2002, Bush visited the Carpenters Joint Apprenticeship Center near Pittsburgh, Pa., to express his worry about Americans who can't find work. "I'm encouraged about job growth, but I'm not satisfied," he said.
Bush began his first week back in Washington after a monthlong stay at his Texas ranch with a Sunday church service at St. John's Church near the White House.
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