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White House tries to defuse criticism on jobs report

Democrats hit issue on campaign trail

President Bush touts the benefits of tax cuts during a speech Thursday in Washington.
President Bush touts the benefits of tax cuts during a speech Thursday in Washington.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House sought Thursday to defuse criticism of its economic policies in the wake of its apparent retreat from a report on jobs projections, an issue that Democrats have seized on this election year.

On the campaign trail, Democratic presidential hopefuls hammered the president over the flap generated by the report from the White House Council of Economic Advisers. And House Democratic leaders Thursday called on the president to explain his policies on job creation and the deficit.

President Bush, meanwhile, touted his stewardship of the economy, and he tried to focus the debate on taxes as he delivered a speech in Washington.

"When you hear them say, 'We're going to repeal the Bush tax cuts,' that means tax increase. That's what that is," Bush said. " 'I'm gonna raise your taxes' is what they're saying."

But Democrats honed in on the economic report, which projected 2.6 million new jobs this year. This week, however, various administration officials downplayed the significance of that number, and Bush himself declined to endorse the projection when asked about it Wednesday.

Treasury Secretary John Snow and Commerce Secretary Don Evans have "refused to back up the official prediction by the White House that the economy will add 2.6 million jobs this year," the Democratic letter said.

"The numbers you are debating represent the jobs of American workers. What you believe to be an intellectual debate among your Cabinet members has a real impact on the lives of middle-class American families nationwide. If you no longer believe your economic program will create 2.6 million additional jobs, Americans would like to know, how many will it create?" asked the letter.

It was signed by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and several other Democrats in leadership positions.

Bush made no direct mention of the report in his comments Thursday, but he defended his approach to job creation and its focus on tax cuts.

"If you're interested in job creation, why not focus on the job creators?" he asked rhetorically. "So the tax relief was passed, not only to help individuals, but to help our small-business sector."

But the administration came in for some ridicule on the campaign trail.

Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic front-runner from Massachusetts, poked fun at the administration's handling of its own economic report.

"Just last week, the White House promised to create 2.6 million jobs this year," he said in Washington as he picked up the labor endorsement of the AFL-CIO. "But yesterday, George Bush said he couldn't be held responsible for knowing the number of new jobs, because he's not in charge of numbers. Well, ladies and gentlemen, it just doesn't take a lot of fuzzy math to count to zero."

The flap over the job projections marked the second time recently that the White House found itself on the defensive over the economy.

Gregory Mankiw, chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, raised eyebrows with his testimony last week before Congress that seemed to suggest the movement of U.S. jobs overseas was a good thing. White House officials have since disavowed any such suggestion.

At the White House, press secretary Scott McClellan stressed Bush's commitment to American workers.

"This president is focused on one thing, and that is creating as robust an environment as possible for job creation," McClellan said.

And Bush said it was up to Congress to work with him.

"Tax relief is working, factory orders are up, housing is strong, the unemployment rate is down from 6.3 percent last June to 5.6 percent in January. Things are positive, but there's more that Congress should to do keep momentum alive."

Bush reiterated his call for Congress to make permanent a series of tax cuts it has already passed.

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