updated 3/9/2004 4:09:39 PM ET 2004-03-09T21:09:39

President Bush touted trade as central to economic growth Tuesday and renewed his warning against “economic isolationists” who question free-trade pacts, a veiled criticism of Democratic rival John Kerry.

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“As our economy moves forward and new jobs are added, some are questioning whether American companies and American workers are up to the challenge of foreign competition,” Bush said during a Commerce Department awards ceremony. “There are economic isolationists in our country who believe we should separate ourselves from the rest of the world by raising up barriers and closing off markets. They’re wrong.”

The charge of economic isolationism, a staple of Bush’s political speeches, is aimed at Kerry even though he was not mentioned by name. Bush usually tries to tar Kerry as anti-trade with a remark like he gave last week in Los Angeles: “My opponent talks about job creation, too, but he’s against every one of these job-creating measures. Empty talk about jobs and economic isolation won’t get anyone hired.”

But Kerry, the Massachusetts senator and presumptive Democratic nominee for president, supported the North American Free Trade Agreement and world trade deals. On the campaign trail, Kerry has said he would place all trade deals under 120-day review and wants labor and environmental standards in new pacts. He also would require companies to give notice before sending jobs overseas.

Bush has erected barriers to trade. In March 2002, he imposed tariffs on 10 types of foreign-made steel, then set stiff import duties on a popular type of Canadian lumber. Both actions angered major U.S. trading partners.

Reversal on steel tariffs
Bush backed down on the steel tariffs last December when the World Trade Organization ruled them illegal and Europeans threatened retaliation.

With the country having lost more than 3 million manufacturing jobs since mid-2000, Democrats scoff at Bush’s claims of job growth and say the administration is insensitive to the plight of the manufacturing sector. The president’s critics also argue that free trade has opened American workers to unfair competition from low-wage countries with lax protections of labor rights and the environment.

Bush used the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Awards ceremony to sound an upbeat message on the economy, contending that inflation and interest rates are low while the stock market, manufacturing and home ownership are up. The awards were named for the Reagan administration commerce secretary who died in a rodeo accident in 1987. Six companies and one school district were honored for excellence in various sectors, from manufacturing to education.

“Malcolm Baldrige served as commerce secretary in the 1980s at a time when many questioned whether America could remain the world’s strongest economy — he was an optimistic guy,” Bush said. “He dedicated himself to proving the skeptics wrong. That kind of confidence in the American economy’s strength was justified in his day, and it is justified in our day.”

The Kerry campaign responded by conferring its own award on Bush: the “Herbert Hoover Award” for presiding over the worst record on jobs of any president since the Depression.

“Since the president is handing out awards today, we wanted to give him one,” said former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, Kerry’s campaign chairwoman.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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