WASHINGTON – Congress is wrapping up the legislative year without passing an agro-friendly energy bill (search), but farmers have made out pretty well so far during this administration, and President Bush hopes to ride the goodwill during his 2004 re-election campaign.
On Monday, Bush went to Michigan, a vital state to the manufacturing industry (search), to tout new figures showing a strong resurgence in the economy and to promote the creation of 286,000 new jobs in the last three months.
"So what we're here today [to do] is talk about good economic policy. But really what we're here about is to make sure people can find a job," Bush told workers at a metal treating plant in Dearborn.
But even as the president appeared focused on the manufacturing industry, farms and the trade policies that could affect the agriculture industry were not far from his mind.
"We need an energy policy. We need to encourage conservation and certainly efficiencies ... in order for manufacturing concerns to be vibrant and vital, they need reliable sources of energy," Bush said.
Michigan lost 100,000 manufacturing jobs during the Bush administration, and the persistent unemployment rate there could suggest a growing distrust of the president by Michigan voters.
But steel isn't the state's only resource. Michigan is also one of the nation's leading farm states, and farmers seem to be faring just fine.
Bush has seen to that by making sure farmers avoided the troubles faced by manufacturers, guaranteeing that their agricultural products are bought and paid for. Last year's farm bill dramatically increased government payments for wheat, rice and cotton crops — and devoted more than $190 billion in agricultural spending over 10 years.
Bush promoted passage of the farm bill in a May 2002 speech in which he emphasized that the bill will "strengthen the farm economy over the long term," help farmer independence and preserve the "farm way of life for generations."
The president is also pressing the cause of rural America by pushing for passage of the energy bill. In the energy bill, which fell prey to a last-minute filibuster, ethanol (search) production would have doubled to 5 billion gallons per year by 2012.
Bush sought $3 billion to boost production of the corn-based fuel additive whose value is questioned by environmentalists. If the energy bill had been completed on time, that would have meant a big purchase by Uncle Sam of a bumper crop of corn during the 2004 re-election year.
It also could have cemented Bush's standing in the farming sector, strong in states that played a crucial role in the 2000 election. Now, the president has another opportunity to win big with both farmers and manufacturers.
Steel consumers, many of whom are in Michigan, want the president to drop steel tariffs he imposed in March 2002 to help domestic producers compete with foreign sources of steel. Consumers say the inflated prices made it difficult for them to stay afloat during the economic downturn.
Bush is said to be debating whether to lift the steel tariffs, set to expire in 2005. The World Trade Organization has deemed them illegal and the European Union has threatened that if the president does not lift the tariffs by Dec. 15, it will impose $2.2 billion retaliatory sanctions on American products, not least of which are agricultural goods.
EU sanctions would not only hurt citrus growers in the crucial election state of Florida, but farmers in electoral vote-rich Michigan as well.
"Trade is becoming more and more vital to American agriculture, and the trade negotiations and how we handle some of those could really spell the difference between being able to make it on a farm in rural America and not being able to make it," said Troy Bredenkamp of the American Farm Bureau.
Bush would like to avoid a copycat situation of the 2000 election contest between himself and former Vice President Al Gore. In that race, Midwest states played a vital role in the electoral dogfight between the candidates, and the numbers showed farm states evenly divided.
In the 2000 race, the battle for the farm vote was most dramatic in Iowa and Wisconsin, which Gore won by fewer than 4,200 and 5,800 votes, respectively.
But farm state votes in 2000 were all over the map. Gore won Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota by less than 5 percent in each state. That made up 46 electoral votes. Bush won Ohio, Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas by less than 5 percent of the vote, winning 49 electoral votes.
The president's political advisers say it's hard to erode Democratic support on either coast, but in 2004 the Midwest continues to remain up for grabs. Cautious decisions on international trade agreements and billions in cash from Washington may allow the president to enter his bid for re-election with a political advantage that only incumbency and tax dollars can buy.
Fox News' Major Garrett contributed to this report.