WASHINGTON – While President Bush was out on a public relations campaign this week to promote his reconstruction policy for Iraq, new numbers out Thursday seem to be making his economic policy case for him.
"Our strategy has set the stage for sustained growth," Bush told the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce (search) in Maine on Thursday, adding that he saw many signs of economic rebound: low inflation, record homeownership, high productivity and rising factory orders.
But even though some economic indicators are up, Democrats still say the president hasn't done enough in that arena, or domestic policy in general, particularly with so strong a focus on Iraq and the war on terrorism. Bush's economics have done little to create jobs, they charge, and a lot to create a massive federal deficit.
The number of Americans lining up for first-time unemployment benefits (search) fell to 382,000 in the week ending Oct. 4, the government reported Thursday -- that's a decrease from a revised 405,000 the week before that. The latest numbers are the lowest unemployment numbers in eight months.
The number of unemployed people collecting jobless benefits for more than a week also went down by 7,000 -- to 3.6 million for the week ending Sept. 27.
The economy, which grew at an annual rate of 3.3 percent in the April-to-June quarter of this year, also is believed to have picked up more speed and grown at a rate of around 5 percent in the July-to-September quarter, economists said.
And on Wednesday, top White House and congressional budget officials said the federal deficit will dip to about $380 billion for fiscal year 2003, which ended Sept. 30. In July, the White House expected the 2003 deficit to hit $455 billion. The Congressional Budget Office in August projected a 2003 shortfall of $401 billion.
White House Budget Director Joshua Bolton (search) attributed the deficit decrease to higher revenue collections and lower spending than originally anticipated.
Democrats have pointed the finger at Bush for gloom-and-doom deficits and said his mismanagement of the economy and increased tax cuts are mainly to blame.
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said "record Bush deficits," millions of Americans without health care and high unemployment numbers "will outlast the remainder of this presidency."
Bush has also created new problems abroad, Markey argued, since the administration proposed billions of dollars in grants to reconstruct Iraq's electricity grid, airports and critical infrastructure, "even as reports abound citing the decrepit state of our electricity grid, airport security, bridges, tunnels and chemical facilities."
"President Bush said, 'Good Riddance' to Saddam Hussein in his speech today, but New Englanders are wondering why so many corporations are saying 'Good Riddance' to good jobs," Markey said in a statement.
In a Thursday morning speech to National Guardsmen (search) and reservists in Portsmouth, Maine, Bush said progress was being made on the war on terror and hailed the U.S.-led coalition's effort to oust former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Later in the day, the House Appropriations Committee approved the president's request for nearly $87 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan, despite a Democratic amendment to pay for some of the money with a roll back of 1 percent of the tax cut to earners making more than $311,000 per year. The full House is expected to vote on the supplemental bill next week.
Bush acknowledged the economy was still struggling and said New Hampshire had lost one out of five of its manufacturing jobs. But on the other hand, he said his proposals had resulted in tax cuts for 112,000 small business owners in the state and 124,000 families had benefited from an increase in the child tax credit.
He urged Congress to make his tax cuts permanent rather than allow them to expire, as now planned.
Unwelcome news awaited Bush in New Hampshire. A statewide survey found that 54 percent of adults approve of Bush's handling of Iraq, down from 64 percent in June. And, for the first time, less than half -- 46 percent -- said they approved of his handling of the economy, according to the poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
Nationally, Bush's approval ratings have dropped to the lowest levels of his presidency in recent weeks.
Bush said a president should not be swayed by the polls, and he was applauded when he declared, "I came to this office to confront problems directly and forcefully, not to pass them on to other presidents and other generations."
But Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., on Thursday said the president had a "missed opportunity" in Portsmouth by focusing mainly on his tax-cut and pro-business strategy rather than on other domestic issues.
"Nothing would have pleased me more than [to have the] president ensure they have the same access to meaningful health care that other members of [the] armed forces and veterans have," Daschle said.
He added that Bush missed a chance to support an amendment the Senate approved last Friday to extend military and health coverage to some members of the National Guard and Reserves.
"I don't think the American people want spin," Daschle said. "I think they want results."
Bush urged Congress to quickly act on his six-point plan, the centerpiece of which is new job creation. The plan calls for making health care more affordable; reducing the number of junk lawsuits; ensuring affordable, reliable energy supply with a decreasing dependence on foreign energy sources; streamlining regulations and reporting requirements; opening new markets for American products through free-trade agreements and other methods; and enabling families and businesses to plan for the future through tax cuts and other means.
"We're moving forward but we are not satisfied. We can't be satisfied so long as we have fellow citizens who are looking for work," Bush said. "That's an issue we must deal with. We must act boldly from this point forward to create jobs in America."
Democratic presidential contenders have all assailed parts or all of Bush's economic policy.
More criticism was expected Thursday night, when the nine candidates were to face off in a 90-minute televised debate.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., has assailed Howard Dean and Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., for seeking to repeal all of Bush's tax cuts, including some favoring the middle class. Kerry and others want to roll back tax cuts only on the wealthy.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.