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Bush courts labor on labor's big holiday

President Bush
Bush: "On this Labor Day ... I'm concerned about working families."  

DETROIT, Michigan (CNN) -- President George W. Bush spent his first Labor Day in office with a stop in the proudly-blue collar Green Bay, Wisconsin, area, paying a visit to a carpenters union local before joining Teamsters in Detroit for a picnic Monday afternoon.

Bush's appearances before both labor groups made for some unusual behavior for a Republican president. Here was Bush in Wisconsin, wearing an open collar in a union hall, cheered on by members in hard hats, as he spoke of his concern for working families and the slumping economy.

Then in Michigan, there he was again, praising Teamsters President James Hoffa and -- like a long time union man -- getting a gold watch as a gift.

"On this Labor Day, I've got to tell you, I'm concerned about working families. I'm concerned our economy is not as strong as it should be," Bush said at his morning stop in Kaukauna, Wisconsin. The president then added: "I'm concerned about the children whose dad or mom may not be able to find work right now."

For much of his first eight months in office, Bush has been criticized by some as being too pro-business, and for not being enough of the "compassionate" conservative he cast himself as during last year's campaign.

U.S. President George W. Bush spends Labor Day trying to show union workers he feels their economic pain. CNN's Major Garrett reports (September 3)

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CNN's Sean Callebs reports on the impact migrant workers have on one family's farming business (Sept. 3)

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Many Democrats have labeled the president's tax cut as a custom package that offers relief mostly for the upper classes, as have some of the nation's top labor leaders. John Sweeney, the head of the nation's largest labor organization, the AFL-CIO, earlier this year called Bush's first months in office "a tragedy for working families."

Still, the White House has found some agreement with labor. The two unions he visited Monday -- the Teamsters and the carpenters union -- are backing Bush's controversial energy plan, which would allow oil exploration and extraction in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. For them, the energy plan presents the potential for thousands of new union jobs.

"Some folks might have thought they took a risk in inviting a Republican here," Bush said in Detroit. "But I stand before you as a proud American, first and foremost."

Though the two unions disagree with the administration on a variety of other issues, such as the White House's push to loosen restrictions for Mexican trucks on U.S. roads, there is enough common ground with Bush to garner him a warm reception in Wisconsin.

"It's no secret: This isn't an administration were' going to agree with all the time," said carpenters union head Douglas McCarron. "But, Mr. President," McCarron said, turning to Bush, "we didn't agree with the last administration all the time either."

"We need dialogue with both parties," Lawrence Brennan, head of the Detroit Teamsters, said before Bush addressed his local's members.

Mending fences

A measure of labor support for GOP politicians is not entirely new. The Teamsters, for one, endorsed Ronald Reagan and Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, for president in the 1980s. Yet the current President Bush did not receive the Teamsters endorsement in his run against former Vice President Al Gore last year, a race that ended up being one of the closest in history.

Still, Bush has been willing to mend fences. On Monday, he praised Teamsters president James P. Hoffa as "a good man," giving a presidential endorsement to Hoffa, who is seeking another term in charge of the 1.5 million-member union.

"I don't know if that will help him or hurt him in his re-election campaign," Bush joked.

Mending fences with labor could also be key for Bush's own prospects for a 2004 run.

Exit polls showed that Gore took the union vote handily in the 2000 election, with 62 percent of union members casting ballots for the Democratic candidate while just 34 percent went for Bush.

That margin may have made a difference in the two states Bush visited Monday. Gore won in Wisconsin by fewer than 5,000 votes. The margin for Gore was broader in Michigan, but the race there was close, too: Gore took 51 percent of Michigan votes, while Bush got 47 percent.

In addition, the recent spate of news about the weak economy and the shrinking budget surplus has given fiscal matters a new prominence on the national political scene. The last time the nation's economy was as weak was during the recession of the early 1990s, when the first President Bush was in office. Many credited the 1992 defeat of Bush the elder's bid for re-election to the weak economy, and to the belief he was out of touch with working families.

Working up a sweat

On Monday, the younger Bush did his best to show he is in touch with American workers.

During his stop in Wisconsin, he put on a hard-hat and broke a sweat as he tried his hand at some carpentry, working a lathe, laying tile and installing a window.

The economy is a source of concern, but he would take care of it, Bush said -- starting with his tax cut, the reason for the rebate checks being mailed out to working families across the United States this summer.

"One of my jobs is not to shirk problems, but to deal with them," Bush said, adding that he was confident of the economy's recovery.

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