BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – President Bush came here to talk about the nation's economy but it was his message about Iraq (search) — a day after an Army helicopter was shot down — that brought a crowd to its feet Monday when he declared: "The enemy in Iraq believes America will run ... America will never run."
The president did not mention it specificially, but it was clear that the 16 Americans killed in Sunday's helicopter crash were on the minds of the 350 people gathered at a crane company for his speech.
"Some of the best have fallen in service to our fellow Americans," he said. "We mourn every loss. We honor every name. We grieve with every family. And we will always be grateful that liberty has found such brave defenders."
Iraq and the economy are both difficult issues for Bush. A majority of people surveyed in recent polls disapprove of his handling of both.
Bush's remarks about the economy hardly stirred workers, who sat nearly motionless in a warm maintenance shop where a white crane that can lift 385 tons served as a backdrop for the president. But the crowd started applauding when he talked of how a free Iraq would allow children to grow up without the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001.
And they rose to their feet after he said: "Freedom is not America's gift to the world ... freedom is the Almighty's gift to everybody who lives in this world."
Johnny Spann, the father of slain CIA officer Johnny "Mike" Spann (search), killed in Afghanistan, led the pledge of allegiance later at a fund-raiser at a Birmingham hotel.
"We're mostly family oriented people and when he mentioned the sons and daughters over there fighting for freedom, I think that's what struck a chord," said Steve Upton, vice president of CraneWorks, a company on the north side of Birmingham that leases cranes and other equipment. "When he said America would not stop [in Iraq], it builds confidence that we're going to win the war against terrorism."
The president raised $1.8 million for his re-election fund, which had roughly $92 million already. Republican presidential candidates have won Alabama (search) in six straight elections.
Several blocks away, about 100 jeering protesters gathered in a shady park to criticize the administration's environmental and economic policies.
Most speakers focused on opposition to the Army's newest chemical weapons incinerator, located about 50 miles east in Anniston. Larry Fahn, president of the Sierra Club, called the incinerator an "outrageous" example of Bush's contempt for the environment and ordinary people, who have been told to seal up a room in their homes in case of an accident.
In his remarks about the economy, Bush said, "We're saddened by the fact that somebody might be looking for work who can't find a job. There's more jobs to be created here in America."
He mentioned the brisk 7.2 percent increase in the gross domestic product only in passing, focusing instead on a political vulnerability: 9 million Americans still out of work despite evidence of an economic resurgence. Of the 2.7 million jobs the U.S. economy has lost since the recession began in early 2001, 2.4 million were in manufacturing.
"Even though the Bush administration is taking credit for the 7.2 percent growth rate of our economy, the fact is this is largely due to other economic factors, like historically low interest rates and current trends in the housing market," countered Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez, D-N.Y., ranking Democratic member of the House Small Business Committee.
Bush said his tax cuts, which he called on Congress to make permanent, were responsible for the vibrant third-quarter growth, and that raising them now would "wreck economic recovery" and "punish hardworking Americans and endanger thousands of jobs."
Bush flew to Alabama from Waco, Texas, where he was spending a long weekend.
On Tuesday, Bush travels to southern California to tour areas damaged by wildfires. Both Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and Republican governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger will meet Bush in Miramar, Calif., survey the charred region by helicopter and walk Harbison Canyon, according to White House officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.