- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 5, 2001

ORLANDO, Fla. President Bush yesterday came to this tourism mecca to reassure the nation that travel is safe and his administration is focused on restoring the economy.

He drew standing ovations in his first town hall meeting since the September 11 terrorist attacks.

During the 45-minute event, Mr. Bush stepped out from behind a podium to address concerns from ordinary Americans, answering 19 questions on topics including unemployment, education, military tribunals (which he asked himself) and whether he would shake a young girl's hand (asked by the girl herself, who got a kiss instead).

"It's good to get out of Washington to get the real story," a relaxed and playful Mr. Bush said, drawing cheers.

He said he "thought it was right" to talk directly to Americans, who "may have some questions to the president."

While many in the media have sought to portray Mr. Bush as oblivious to the nation's economic woes while he wages war on international terrorism, the president pointed the finger of blame at Congress especially the Senate, where his stimulus bill is stalled.

"I urge the United States Congress to stop talking and to get an economic-security bill to my desk. The Senate needs to get a bill, get it reconciled and get it to my desk so we can say we're doing the people's business in a way that will make you proud."

He said politicians need to focus on what is important to Americans.

"We ought to ask the question in Washington, 'What does it take to create jobs so hardworking Americans can be able to put food on the table?' That's what we ought to be asking."

Mr. Bush sought to reassure Americans, and the audience of about 5,000 invited guests, that air travel is safe.

"I want the American people to know that if you want to travel, and if that's your desire, if you're planning to do this in your budget and you've been thinking about it, air travel is getting safer and safer and safer.

"And that's the best thing the government can do," Mr. Bush said.

In answer to a question from a laid-off worker, Mr. Bush expressed his sympathy.

"There's nothing that hurts me more than to know as we head into the holiday season that some of our citizens and some of their families hurt because they've been laid off as a result of 9/11."

Mr. Bush said the federal government is striving to step up programs to re-educate workers for available jobs.

He also said he supports extending unemployment benefits by 13 weeks to help the hardest hit. In addition, the president said tax cuts are still the best answer.

"We ought to accelerate the tax cuts we have in place. More money in people's pockets means more economic activity."

Orlando, home to Walt Disney World, has lost about 2,000 jobs, most in the tourist and hospitality industries, since the attacks.

Revenue at the theme park central Florida's largest employer, with more than 50,000 workers dropped 25 percent since Sept. 11, forcing the closure of several hotels and the shortening of hours at the park.

But Walt Disney World is beginning to rebound, announcing after a promising Thanksgiving draw that it will hire 700 new workers.

The president drew cheers when he spoke of the U.S.-led war against terrorism.

In answer to a boy's question about how he felt on September 11, Mr. Bush said, "I wasn't sure what to think at first.

"I knew that when I got all the facts that we were under attack, there would be hell to pay for attacking America," he said, drawing a standing ovation.

Mr. Bush also sought to assure America he is working "within the confines" of the Constitution in issuing a military order to create tribunals to try foreigners charged with terrorism crimes.

After laying out his case no American would be tried by the courts and sensitive intelligence information could be protected Mr. Bush drew thunderous applause by closing: "It seems like to me that the president of the United States ought to have the option to protect the national-security interests of the country and, therefore, protect America from further attack."

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