NEW YORK – Democrats considering a 2004 challenge of President Bush criticized him Monday for his handling of the economy, his tax cut and the transformation of a federal budget surplus into a deficit.
"The president came here to New York, to take Wall Street to the woodshed," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle told centrist Democrats at their annual meeting. Referring to Bush's recent comments on business scandals and corporate accountability, he said the president has been "full of tough talk but short on real solutions."
Daschle and other potential 2004 Democratic presidential candidates were in New York to address the Democratic Leadership Council. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman also spoke on Monday, and House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards were expected Tuesday.
Former Vice President Al Gore, the 2000 Democratic nominee, and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean were not coming.
Lieberman told the group that "The Bush administration suffers from a profound economic leadership deficit."
"This administration has no growth strategy but one," and that is to cut taxes and increase spending, Lieberman said.
Kerry said the Bush administration has contributed to "a crisis of confidence that touches everything -- corporate books, fiscal discipline, the tax cut, Washington politics, the war on terror and our economic future."
Daschle, the South Dakota senator, said that effective follow-through on the corporate legislation will be critical to help an economy experiencing "a grizzly bear market."
"We're seeing executives arrested, CEOs indicted and a major accounting firm convicted," he said. "People are losing their life savings and losing faith in the markets."
He discounted Republican descriptions of the 1990s as a "binge," saying it was "eight years of unprecedented prosperity that benefited all Americans, not just those at the top."
He said those days could return by practicing fiscal discipline and investing in the American people, "not by cutting $1 billion from education, as the president's budget for next year does."
Daschle cited the rescue of Pennsylvania coal miners and the people who died aboard United Flight 93 after they fought their terrorist kidnappers.
"We can certainly overcome our economic difficulties," Daschle said. "All we need is a realistic plan."
Bush plans to sign the corporate-accountability measure with fanfare at the White House on Tuesday. The stock market showed signs of revival last week and was rising strongly early Monday.
The corporate accounting scandal and struggling economy have raised Democratic hopes.
"This is not just a beauty contest," New Hampshire state Sen. Lou D'Allesandro said of the parade of speakers at this week's conference. "There is a strong feeling that we could win in '04."
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel countered: "President Bush has shown great leadership on the economy. He has provided tax relief for all Americans. His corporate fraud task force is cracking down on executives who break the law."
Stanzel said Bush "leadership led to passage of the corporate responsibility bill, which he looks forward to signing into law."
Throughout their meeting, Democrats are getting a reminder they need to call for corporate accountability without sounding anti-business.
"They need to remember that we are in the progressive tradition that believes in private enterprise to create opportunity and growth and believes in public activism to make sure that opportunity is widespread," said Al From, founder and chief executive of the DLC. But he said the economy is certain to play a role in upcoming elections.
"In the 2002 elections, the issue is going to be what's happened over the last 20 months," said From. "People are worse off economically than they were when Bill Clinton left office."