Like a Cloud, Economic Woes Follow Bus Tour
Published on Monday, August 4, 2003 by the New York Times
Like a Cloud, Economic Woes Follow Bus Tour
by Elisabeth Bumiller

CRAWFORD, Tex. -- President Bush slipped speedily into vacation mode this past weekend at his furnace of a ranch in Central Texas, where he spent Sunday fishing, clearing cedar and going for a walk with the first lady and his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice. But before the president ducked out of public sight, he made sure to address one of the biggest re-election anxieties of Karl Rove, his chief political adviser: the nation's continuing loss of jobs and the uncertainty about the economy.

"This week, three members of my cabinet Treasury Secretary John Snow, Commerce Secretary Don Evans and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao visited business owners and their workers in the Midwest," Mr. Bush said in his weekly radio address on Saturday. "They received reports that the economy is picking up."

Well, yes and no.

Anyone on the trip, which was a very un-Air Force One-like, two-day, six-city bus journey across Wisconsin and Minnesota (Ms. Chao dined on Tuesday night at Burger King), could see that the cabinet members charged with promoting the president's tax cuts also heard a lot of anger from workers about foreign competition and laid-off relatives and friends.

"Right now I am very disillusioned with the Republicans' policies," said Michael Retzer, a Republican and a consultant to a supplier for Harley-Davidson. Mr. Retzer told Mr. Snow at a Harley plant near Milwaukee that he did not see how the tax cuts would stimulate the economy when so many consumers would spend the extra money on goods made overseas.

Later, in the kind of confrontation with a disgruntled citizen almost never seen on the president's trips, Mr. Snow tangled with an unemployed software programmer at the drive-through at Culver's Frozen Custard and ButterBurgers in Wausau, Wis.

"He said, `But your tax cuts haven't done anything for me,' " Mr. Snow recounted the next day to reporters, as the bus traveled through Minnesota. "And I said, `Well, now, let's just take a second and talk about that.' "

Here in McLennan County, Tex. which includes the nearby city of Waco, the one-stoplight town of Crawford and the president's 1,600-acre ranch the number of people unable to find work jumped to more than 6,000 in June 2003 from more than 4,000 in June 2000, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"That's pretty much a general slowdown that mirrors the rest of the country," said Cheryl Abbot, an economist at the agency's Southwest Regional Office in Dallas.

Although the McLennan County unemployment rate jumped from 4 percent in June 2000 to 5.7 percent in June 2003, it was still lower than the national unemployment rate in June of 6.4 percent. But the jobless rate for Texas that month was 7.5 percent, and more than 800,000 people in the state could not find work, up from 527,000 people in June 2000.

An unscientific series of interviews with Crawford businesspeople and churchgoers Sunday revealed plenty of support for Mr. Bush, whose presidency has brought a surge of tourists to the once-shuttered main street but uneasiness about the economy and nervousness about his policies.

"You look at the tax breaks he's cut for everybody and I wonder how he's able to do that," said John Dutschmann, 32, a sales manager for a concrete products company who had just attended services at Crawford's First Baptist Church. Mr. Dutschmann, a Democrat who supported Mr. Bush in 2000, said he was still behind the president, although he had trepidations about the economy. "We just put our trust in him, and we hope he knows what he's doing," he said.

Paul Stripling, 67, a Republican and executive director emeritus of the Waco Baptist Association, who had also attended services at the First Baptist Church, said that Waco had not felt the economic crunch as much as other parts of Texas and that Mr. Bush "is doing the best he can with a very precarious situation."

Brent Duncan, 40, a hotel owner who was talking with other parishioners after services at Crawford's United Methodist Church, said that his business was doing well he is building a hotel in the nearby town of McGregor and that he would probably vote for Mr. Bush in 2004. But Mr. Duncan, who described himself as a conservative Democrat, said that his support was not guaranteed.

"Let's see who the Democrats put out," he said.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Mr. Bush has little on his public schedule this week, although Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld is to make an appearance Friday.

But next week, as part of a monthlong campaign to try to convince voters that sunnier economic days are just around the corner, Mr. Bush will meet at the ranch with his economic team, then take his economic message around the country in day trips from Crawford. His tone will be upbeat, which was evidently the tenor of the report he heard from his cabinet secretaries after the Midwest bus trip last week.

As Mr. Snow put it, "I'm going to go back and tell the president, `Mr. President, I ran into a lot of people who asked me personally to express my gratitude to you for worrying and thinking about us.' "

Mr. Snow did not say if he would mention the man in the drive-through at Culver's.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company