WASHINGTON – Eager to rescue approval ratings dragged low by the Iraq war, President Bush focused on an upbeat employment report Friday and pronounced the future of the U.S. economy "as bright as it's been in a long time."
A buoyant president strode into the White House Rose Garden, as light snow flurries swirled through the air, to welcome a new Labor Department report showing U.S. jobs rebounding from a beating delivered by the Gulf Coast hurricanes. Nonfarm payrolls grew by 215,000 in November, the strongest increase since July, according to the report.
"This economy is in good shape," Bush said with a smile.
Bush made no mention of the deaths in Iraq of 10 Marines, who were killed Thursday by a roadside bomb near Fallujah. White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the president had been briefed about the incident, the deadliest in Iraq in nearly four months, on Thursday night and again Friday morning before he spoke to the press. In all, more than 2,100 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the war in 2003.
Asked why Bush did not talk about the Marines, McClellan said: "I think you have to separate out the two issues" of Iraq and the economy. Typically, Bush does not comment on losses in Iraq.
Questions about Iraq from both the public and politicians in Washington have dogged Bush lately. His approval rating is at the lowest point of his presidency, at 37 percent in a recent AP-Ipsos poll. A slow reaction to Hurricane Katrina, and record-high energy prices also helped pull down the president's popularity.
The White House has been searching for ways to reclaim momentum, planning several pointed speeches for the president to defend his strategy on Iraq and turning to the economy after the topic had been largely absent from his schedule. On Monday, he travels to Kernersville, N.C., to deliver an economic speech.
Two days later, he'll deliver a speech about Iraq's economy.
With recent indicators showing strong growth, low inflation, productivity gains, lower gasoline prices, a strong housing market, and increases in consumer confidence and business investment — in addition to the good jobs report — the White House concluded the time was ripe to trumpet the string of good news. During the hastily arranged 2 1/2-minute appearance, Bush focused on nothing else and took no questions that might overshadow his message — including ignoring a shouted one about a military program that paid for favorable stories in Iraqi media.
A top economic adviser to Bush, National Economic Council Chairman Al Hubbard, said that a disconnect evident in polls between the good news on the economy and people's more depressed view of their own financial situations is understandable, given the fears produced by the hurricanes and high gasoline prices.
"Whenever you have higher energy prices it makes people feel ill at ease, uncomfortable with their economic situation," he said. "But the most remarkable thing is that the economy's continued to expand despite those two big challenges."
Hubbard put a question mark over when Bush might pursue an overhaul of the tax code. The idea was originally one of Bush's central priorities for this year, but was put off as he promoted Social Security changes, an initiative that stalled.
"The timing is unclear," Hubbard said. "In terms of priorities next year, I'm going to leave it up to him to share his priorities with the American people."