- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The White House fired back yesterday at Democrats who disparaged President Bush’s flight to an aircraft carrier Thursday as nothing more than an expensive photo-op.”That political criticism is a disservice to the men and women of the military who are worthy of being thanked in person,” White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters shortly after leaving the USS Abraham Lincoln with Mr. Bush.”This is not about the president,” Mr. Fleischer added. “This is about saying thank you to the men and women who won a war.”The rebuke came one day after a senior administration official told The Washington Times: “The president has never politicized national security nor will he. And I think it would be unfortunate if Democrats did.”The back-to-back remarks signaled a new willingness by the White House to respond to attacks by Democrats. Previously, the administration portrayed Mr. Bush as too busy prosecuting the war in Iraq to respond to the criticisms of Democratic rivals.But now that Mr. Bush has informally declared victory in Iraq, he is eager to turn his attention to the economy and other domestic issues that will factor in next year’s presidential election. The president is also mindful that Democrats are raising their own profiles, beginning with a presidential debate tonight in South Carolina.As a precursor to that debate, some Democrats condemned the president Thursday for helping pilot an antisubmarine jet that landed on the flight deck of the Lincoln as it brought home combat troops from Operation Iraqi Freedom. The president’s landing and subsequent speech to the nation received massive news coverage, prompting grumbling from Democrats that the images would show up in TV ads for the president’s re-election campaign.”The president is going to an aircraft carrier far out at sea with military surroundings, while countless numbers of Americans are frightened stiff about the economy here at home,” said presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat.David Sirota, a spokesman for Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee, agreed.”Forty million Americans have no health care, 2 million jobs have been lost in two years, child poverty is increasing for the first time in a decade, states across the country are going bankrupt,” he told several newspapers. “Yet President Bush has time to take a water-safety class and spend taxpayer money flying out to an aircraft carrier for a stunt photo-op.”Yesterday, Mr. Bush said he was “proud to be with those men and women who wear our nation’s uniform.” He said it was an honor to address the nation from the Lincoln’s flight deck.The president emphasized that although he spent one night on the Lincoln, “most of the crew had been on there for nine and a half months.”Mr. Bush did not personally respond to Democratic complaints about the trip, but he turned up the heat on his political opponents yesterday by demanding that Congress pass his tax cut to counter rising unemployment.”Today, we saw some new statistics on employment,” he told workers at United Defense Industries Inc. “The unemployment number is now at 6 percent, which should serve as a clear signal to the United States Congress, we need a bold economic package so people can find work.”Mr. Bush said a million jobs would be created by next year if Congress passes his latest tax-cut package of at least $550 billion. The package includes the acceleration of tax cuts that were passed in 2001 but were not scheduled to take effect for several more years.After his speech, Mr. Bush flew to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, with Australian Prime Minister John Howard. The two men will hold a joint news conference today.

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