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Bush unveils economic plan, shifts focus to out-of-work Americans | (KRT) KANSAS CITY, Mo. President Bush on Thursday unveiled a six-point economic stimulus plan as part of a White House offensive intended to demonstrate Bush's concern for millions of Americans still out of work.

Bush's latest plan, which includes a call to make tax cuts enacted over the past two years permanent, consists almost entirely of previously introduced initiatives, from an energy policy that encourages more oil and gas drilling to tort reforms that would limit awards in medical malpractice lawsuits.

But the familiarity of Bush's economic proposals belie the fundamental, and politically crucial, shift the president has made this week in the focus of his economic endeavors.

With new polls showing public concern about the economy mounting and criticism of Bush's handling of the recession intensifying, the president has shifted his attention from improving the conditions for businesses big and small to the problems faced by more than 3 million workers who have lost their jobs since he took office in 2001.

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"I'm interested in Americans going to work, that's what I'm interested in," Bush told an appreciative chamber of commerce audience in Kansas City.

"America's economy today is showing signs of promise. We're emerging from a period of national challenge and economic uncertainty," the president said. But, he acknowledged, "Even as this economy is looking up, it's hard to feel confidence if you're somebody looking for a job."

Bush's shift in emphasis from employers to employees reflects a growing concern among aides and supporters that with millions of Americans still looking for work even as the economy shows signs of improvement, voters will retaliate against the president - much as they did against his father in 1992.

A poll released Thursday by the Pew Research Center shows that more than twice as many Americans believe it is more important for Bush to focus on the economy (57 percent) than the war on terrorism (27 percent).

With Democrats and independent voters becoming increasingly critical of Bush's handling of the economy, the president's overall popularity has slipped to 53 percent, down from 74 percent during the Iraq war, according to Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center.

Moreover, 37 percent of the respondents disapproved of the job Bush is doing, the highest negative rating Bush has received since taking office, Kohut said.

Those numbers help explain why Bush made the economy his first order of business after returning from a monthlong vacation at his Texas ranch.

On Labor Day, Bush announced in Ohio that he was hiring a jobs czar to oversee the manufacturing sector, which has been particularly hard hit by the economic downturn, losing about 2.5 million jobs since Bush took office.

Bush lunched with Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan at the White House on Tuesday, then flew to Missouri on Thursday to unveil his latest economic plan and to defend his reliance on tax cuts, saying they brought a swifter end to the recession and saved 1.5 million jobs since they were enacted in 2001. Bush travels to Indiana on Friday and is again expected to discuss the economy.

"They are increasingly worried that the employment levels will be below what they were when Bush took office," said Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "They thought there was going to be greater growth than there was."

Unless job growth suddenly surges, Bush would be the first president since Herbert Hoover to preside over a net nationwide job loss during his tenure.

Economic analysts said these latest initiatives are far more symbolic than substantive. Bush has already made as much of an impact on the economy as he is going to make before the election, those analysts said.

"Nothing that's not already in the oven is going to be baked in time for November 2004," said Mark Bloomfield, president of the American Council for Capital Formation.

That's not to say Bush can just sit back and wait to see if the economy improves, said Norm Ornstein, a political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute.

"These are symbolic steps," Ornstein said of Bush's latest initiatives. "And the symbols may matter enormously. It certainly mattered when his father sent the wrong signals."

Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, was turned out of office after one term, in part because voters felt he was out of touch with their economic concerns.

Economists across the ideological spectrum agreed that if voters don't see significant improvement in the economy by the second quarter of 2004, Bush would face a much tougher fight for a second term.

"Basically, if it isn't actually working in terms of shifting the numbers and reality on the ground by the spring, it's probably too late," Ornstein said.

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© 2003, Chicago Tribune Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services