WASHINGTON – President Bush on Monday defended his record on the economy and the war in Iraq, appearing at a North Carolina college where he praised a partnership between local business leaders and the academic community.
Appearing at Central Piedmont Community College (search), Bush said the economy is getting stronger and that he is optimistic about the future. He cited March unemployment figures showing the best job growth in four years.
Bush said Central Piedmont is incorporating the suggestions of local business leaders into the curriculum so that the jobs students study for and seek actually exist.
Bush is using North Carolina, a state where a new economy is replacing the old, to propose doubling the number of Americans who receive job-training help from the federal government but without additional funding.
"I fully understand that there are people who hurt here," the president said. "Industries like the textiles, and furniture manufacturers are struggling ... that is an issue we've got to deal with."
The visit by Bush to Charlotte to announce the initiative, part of a wider election-year bid to help workers adapt to the changing economy, also marks his last planned personal appearance in the record-shattering fund-raising drive that brought in more than $182.7 million in 11 months.
On Tuesday, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was to travel to the electoral battleground state of Ohio to promote a plan he says would create 10 million new jobs.
The initiative Bush announced contains no new federal spending with a budget deficit expected to approach $500 billion this year. Instead, it relies on $250 million Bush proposed spending earlier this year and forcing state and local governments to spend less on "administrative expenses."
Washington now provides state and local governments more than $4 billion through the Workforce Investment Act, and 16 million people receive various services through it. But only 206,000 people completed formal training through the act's programs last year, according to the White House.
Bush seeks to double that figure to 412,000 in one year.
The White House says Bush's Jobs for the 21st Century Initiative (search), announced in his State of the Union address, would move 100,000 more people into job training.
The $250 million proposal is already part of Bush's budget proposal for next fiscal year's budget, which Congress is considering. The soonest the money would become available would be October of this year.
The money would expand the Labor Department's initiatives to bolster ties between community colleges, public work force agencies and employers. The result, the administration says, is that community colleges produce graduates with skills in demand by area employers.
An additional 100,000 people could receive job training if the government cut $300 million in red tape and administrative costs, the administration officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Administrative expenses for the job-training programs are capped at 15 percent but are loosely enforced, meaning such costs sometimes sap up to 35 percent of federal funds, the officials said.
The Kerry campaign said the Bush administration has a history of cutting job training and vocational education programs "as millions of U.S. jobs disappeared overseas."
"It's great that the president is talking about job training. It's just too bad that there aren't any jobs to train for," said Phil Singer, a Kerry campaign spokesman. "His election-year scramble to come up with a jobs program is not good enough for America's workers."
North Carolina is a textbook example of a state with a shifting economy, from one based largely on tobacco farming to one where high-tech and health care are job engines, a White House official said. Charlotte is a thriving commercial region where more than 600 foreign-owned firms are doing business.
While on the ground there, Bush pledged to "stay the course" and bring democracy to Iraq.
"Terrorists can't stand freedom," Bush said. "We're still being challenged in Iraq and the reason why is a free Iraq will be a major defeat in the cause of freedom."
The president said that in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, "I had a choice to make after Saddam Hussein (search) once again refused to disarm," adding that "I will defend America every time."
The president made no mention of the radical Shiite cleric whose supporters rioted in Iraq over the weekend. Aboard Air Force One, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr (search), has "pledged solidarity with terrorist organizations Hamas and Hezbollah." The cleric is an "individual who is seeking to derail democracy and freedom for the Iraqi people," McClellan said.