WASHINGTON – President Bush (search) sought Saturday to squeeze more political mileage out of news that American employers added the most workers in four years, while Democratic rival John Kerry (search) chose to highlight the still-flat manufacturing sector and blame it on Bush.
The incumbent president running for re-election and the Massachusetts senator who wants to replace him went head-to-head on the jobs issue, each via the traditional weekly radio address for their parties.
Polls consistently show that jobs and the economy are voters' top concerns and that a majority favor Kerry on those issues. With nearly 2 million jobs lost since Bush took office in 2001, Democrats eager for an area where the president is politically vulnerable have hammered him for months for having the worst job-creation record since the Depression.
As a result, Bush reveled for a second day in a Labor Department (search) report showing the nation's employers swelled payrolls by 308,000 in March. He also gave the figures top billing during an appearance Friday in West Virginia — one of the many politically key industrial states where job losses are an especially sensitive issue.
"This week we received powerful confirmation that America's economy is growing stronger," Bush said in his radio address. "People are finding jobs, and the nation's future is bright. America's families and workers have reason to be optimistic."
The jobs report, which when released Friday pushed stocks higher on Wall Street, also revealed a stronger picture than previously thought for the first two months of the year. Revisions to earlier payroll figures found that companies added 205,000 jobs in January and February, instead of the 118,000 reported last month.
And, for the first time in 44 months, the nation's factories did not shed jobs. But they didn't add them either, and Kerry — chosen to deliver the Democratic response to Bush's address — seized on that.
"We now hear the administration claiming success," said Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. "There is not a single month of this administration that has seen the creation of a single manufacturing job."
Other Democrats noted that the unemployment rate inched up one-tenth of a point to 5.7 percent in March. That rise in the jobless rate reflected the larger number of people who started looking for work again but failed to find jobs.
"Only in the Bush `economic recovery' can our country gain jobs and increase the unemployment rate in the same month," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (search), D-N.J.
The president credited his tax-cutting agenda for the economy's addition of more jobs than expected last month.
"Tax relief put this economy on the path to growth," he said.
Quick to emphasize that he is not resting on his laurels, Bush also gave radio listeners a preview of his travels next week — all events designed to highlight other proposals aimed at further boosting the economy.
He goes to North Carolina on Monday to promote his plans for reforming federal job training programs and to Arkansas to discuss his ideas on how to better prepare high school and college students for a changing work force.
"I'm optimistic about the future because I'm confident in the American worker and the American entrepreneur," Bush said. "And with the right policies in Washington, there are even brighter days ahead for American workers and American families."
Kerry has a different prescription for economic growth. He touted his plan to create 10 million jobs, in part by eliminating tax incentives he says encourages companies to send work overseas and using that revenue to lower overall corporate taxes by 5 percent to promote job creation.
"From cars to computer software to call centers, millions of Americans have seen their jobs shipped overseas," the presumptive Democratic nominee said. "We can't retreat from the global economy or bring back every lost industry or protect every job. ... But we shouldn't have a president who encourages it — or a tax code that rewards it."
Bush was spending the weekend at the Camp David (search) presidential retreat in Maryland. Kerry was recovering at his home in Boston from shoulder surgery.