Bush hosts economic forum
Democrats call for 'true summit'
WACO, Texas (CNN) -- Amid Democratic criticism of political showmanship, President Bush Tuesday took a break from his Texas vacation to meet with "ordinary Americans" about the state of the U.S. economy and assure them his administration was "determined" to strengthen it.
"If somebody wants to work and can't find a job, we have a problem and we need to do something about it here in America," Bush said at the close of the economic forum at Baylor University, about 25 miles east of the president's ranch in Crawford.
The conference comes less than three months before the midterm congressional elections and at a time when many Americans say they are concerned about lackluster economic growth and a rocky stock market.
Democrats say the administration has done little to address the concerns of investors and retirees rattled by falling stock prices and a series of corporate scandals. They've made it clear they want to make the president's stewardship of the economy -- and his ties to corporate America -- a campaign issue this fall.
While the president did not reference the upcoming elections, the forum itself appeared designed in part to assure voters that the administration was minding the economic store. To that end, Bush traded in his vacation attire of jeans and a cowboy hat for a blue business suit, weighing in on corporate responsibility, tax cuts, retirement security, pension reform, terrorism insurance and federal spending.
His message: "We've got work to do. I know that, but we're going to do the work."
More than 250 people participated in the economic forum, including Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Cabinet members, CEOs, small business owners, housewives, teachers, truckers, academics, small business owners and other workers from the private sector. The forum did not include members of Congress.
Democrats ridiculed the forum as a public relations stunt.
Rep. Charles Rangel, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, said the forum was "designed to insulate Republican leaders from the growing sense that the country is on the wrong track."
"If the president wants to get serious, he will convene a true summit with leaders from both parties," Rangel, of New York, said in a statement. "The difficulties that the American people are feeling take more to solve than a half day an hour's drive from the ranch."
In an interview with CNN, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Missouri, also called on the administration to hold a budget summit with members of Congress.
"We need a new economic policy, and we can do that only by working together," Gephardt said. But he refused to say whether he wants to roll back any tax cuts -- something Bush opposes.
The idea of a congressional budget summit was received coolly by the White House.
White House Budget Director Mitch Daniels said the administration listens to politicians "11 months of the year" and Tuesday's forum allowed for a "concentrated conversation" with working Americans.
"I think the president's idea was to take advantage of the recess, to talk to people on the front line of the American economy,' Daniels said. He defended the administration's handling of the economy, saying Bush "inherited" a recession when he took office.
Political analysts say the forum, at the very least, provided Bush a chance to avoid making the same mistake his father, former President George Bush, did when he appeared to focus more on the Persian Gulf War than on the economy. Many pundits believe the senior Bush's handling of the economy was a factor in his failed re-election bid.
Bush walked a fine line in his closing speech, emphasizing his belief that the foundations of the U.S. economy are strong but expressing sympathy and concern for those Americans who are hurting.
"Too many Americans have lost a large portion of their retirement funds and they've lost a sense of security in the process," Bush said. "I know that."
But, added Bush, "We're confident in the long-term health of this economy."
Bush repeated his vow to crack down on business executives who commit fraud, called on lawmakers support permanent tax cuts and also challenged Congress to restrain spending. He announced his opposition to approximately $5 billion approved by Congress, saying it has "nothing to do with national security." (Full Story)
Bush participated in four sessions: economic recovery and job creation, corporate responsibility, small investors and retirement security, and health care security.
The makeup of the forum drew some criticism from Democrats.
Some lawmakers said many of the invitees were Republican campaign donors, like Cisco Systems chief executive John Chambers; Caterpillar Inc. chief executive Glen Barton; and broker Charles Schwab.
The Bush administration dismissed the criticism, pointing out that at least 43 of the participants are big donors to Democratic campaigns. They include Fannie Mae chief executive Franklin Raines; Hyatt Hotels executive Penny Pritzker; International Brotherhood of Teamsters representative Jerry Hood; and Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang.
"Those who want to practice partisan politics around [the forum] will do so, but I think it's unjustified because this is really a forum for our economy and finding jobs and finding opportunities to grow," White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card said.
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