- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 23, 2004

WACO, Texas (AP) — President Bush has cited “Help Wanted” signs in key election states as evidence that “America’s jobs engine is running strong.”

Employment has lagged in the economic recovery, so when the president got good news from the Labor Department, he shared it yesterday with his weekly radio audience. He intended his message to convince voters that the economy, which has been considered a drag on his re-election bid, now might prove otherwise.

The department reported that unemployment fell last month in 11 of 17 battleground states that could decide the presidential election. Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin showed the biggest declines.

“This week brought further evidence that across America, more citizens are finding jobs, … and these figures show that America’s jobs engine is running strong,” Mr. Bush said, rattling off the report’s findings.

“Nationally, we gained 288,000 new jobs in April, and the nation has added more than 1.1 million new jobs since last August. … In April, the biggest job-gaining states were Florida, North Carolina, Missouri and Michigan. Forty-five states out of 50 added new workers.”

Not all of the employment news, however, was positive for the Bush-Cheney campaign. Jobless rates rose in four critical election states: Arizona, Arkansas, Washington and Ohio. Moreover, rates stayed the same in two of the 17 states, New Mexico and Pennsylvania, which offer a healthy 21 electoral votes to either Mr. Bush or Democratic rival Sen. John Kerry in November.

Nationwide, the unemployment rate has dropped to 5.6 percent from 6.3 percent last June.

Still, the economy has lost nearly 1.5 million jobs since Mr. Bush took office in January 2001. Recent payroll gains have helped shrink that deficit, but Mr. Bush remains on track to be the first president since Herbert Hoover to lose jobs on his watch.

The Kerry campaign on Friday hailed the good news on employment, but spokeswoman Allison Dobson cautioned: “We’re still in the worst jobs recovery since the Great Depression, and so we have a long way to go.”

On another economic issue, Mr. Bush responded to criticism that his administration is not doing enough to ease gasoline prices, which have surged to an average of more than $2 a gallon. Mr. Bush said Washington was taking three steps to address the high prices.

To protect consumers against high prices, he said, the Energy Department had set up a hot line to gather complaints of price gouging. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham is meeting with world petroleum producers in Amsterdam this weekend to discuss what they can do to help the U.S. and global economies. Third, Mr. Bush said, federal regulations have changed to allow U.S. refineries to improve and expand so that gasoline can get to the market quickly.

Politicians have argued over who should bear the blame for the high prices at the pump.

Mr. Kerry and others favor pressuring the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, which cut production in March and April, to boost its output to meet demand. Others want to use the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, an idea Mr. Kerry has not endorsed. Mr. Kerry has said new contributions to the reserve should be slowed to ease petroleum supplies.

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