President Bush prodded Congress to pass an economic stimulus package Friday, pointing to “troubling signs” in a new report that ended a 52-month streak of national job growth.
Bush was in the nation’s heartland pressuring Congress to boost the sagging economy with a plan of tax rebates for millions of people and tax breaks for companies. The White House-backed economic rescue deal in the House has hit roadblocks in the Senate.
“Inflation’s low. Productivity’s high, but there are certainly some troubling signs, serious signs that the economy is weakening and that we’ve got to do something about it,” said Bush, who spoke just hours after the Labor Department reported that employers cut 17,000 jobs in January.
It was the first such reduction in more than four years and a fresh sign that the economy might be stalling. And it ended Bush’s repeated claim — made most recently in his State of the Union address — that “America has added jobs for a record 52 straight months.”
On Friday, at Hallmark Cards Inc., Bush said, “A serious matter is that for the first time in 52 months we didn’t create jobs.”
“And so the question is, what do we do about it? ... I do think government has a responsibility. I think government can take decisive action to help us deal with this period of uncertainty.”
Bush gave perhaps the gentlest push of his administration, in a shift in rhetoric.
“I appreciate the fact that the Senate is trying to work though this as quickly as possible,” he said. “I’m just urging them to get it done — because the sooner this package makes it to my desk ... the better off our economy is going to be.”
The president’s speech on the economy capped three days of travel to highlight themes in his State of the Union address and raise an estimated $4.7 million for the Republican Party and its candidates in California, Nevada, Colorado and Missouri. After visiting Hallmark, Bush went to raise money for Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., who is in a tough re-election race.
There have been numerous signs that the economy is in what the president called a “rough patch.”
The Commerce Department reported Thursday that consumer spending was up just 0.2 percent in December, the weakest in six months. Also, the Labor Department reported that the number of laid-off workers filing applications for unemployment benefits increased by 69,000 last week.
And overall, the economy nearly stalled in the fourth quarter of last year with a growth rate of just 0.6 percent, capping its worst year since 2002.
Both the president and Congress are anxious to show some action to a frustrated public.
The House quickly adopted a $161 billion economic stimulus plan this week that would send $600-$1,200 rebates to more than 100 million Americans in hopes they would spend the money quickly and give the flagging economy a shot in the arm.
Senate Democrats are pushing to add elements to the House plan that they say will add a bigger boost, including smaller rebates that would go to more people such as low-income older Americans, wealthier taxpayers and disabled veterans, plus heating aid for the poor. The Senate plan, estimated to cost $204 billion, also would extend unemployment benefits.
Bush spoke after taking a tour of Hallmark, which is based in Kansas City. He stepped in a veritable kids’ dream — an interactive playhouse filled with art supplies and colorful props. The president seemed to love it.
As kindergartners buzzed from station to station, Bush patted the kids on their heads and leaned way over so he could talk to them face to face. When he sat down to make his own card with a red marker, Bush looked at reporters and asked, “Who deserves a valentine?”
Later, when Bush took the podium, he appeared to have a little glitter on his face, the product of his visit to the children’s center. “I am still trying to recover from the kindergarten experience,” Bush said. “You talk about sapping your energy.”