President George W. Bush promised economic support for the faltering Oregon economy Saturday in his first trip to the state since coming into office a year ago.
During his three-hour trip to Portland, the President toured a job-training center and spoke to a crowd of more than 2,000 invited guests at Parkrose High School. An estimated 500 protesters greeted Bush at both stops and called for an end to the war in Afghanistan.
“I am deeply concerned that Oregon leads the country when it comes to unemployment,” Bush said, referring to Oregon’s 7.4 percent unemployment rate. “In tough times, people need an unemployment check, but in the long term, what they need is a paycheck.”
The President, speaking in front of a large American flag, touched on economic issues, the war on terrorism and his greater campaign themes of character, American values and spiritual faith. The crowd rose to its feet many times, but never as enthusiastically as when the President offered to help provide water to the blighted farmers of the Klamath River basin. Bush said he was concerned after speaking with Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., and Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, about the lack of water for farmers in the basin.
“They were concerned about some of the people who were trying to make a living off the land,” he said. “I told these two good men that we were gonna do everything we can to make sure water is available.”
Bush avoided laying out any concrete policy measures on the economy, but reaffirmed his support for his 2001 tax cut and for extending unemployment benefits. He also attempted to rally the crowd behind his economic stimulus package, which has stalled in the Senate.
“Any economic stimulus plan must also expand the job base. We ought to be asking ourselves, ‘what will it take to increase more jobs?’ so people can find work,” he said. The President’s optimism about the economy struck a chord with many in the crowd. “I thought the speech was wonderful,” said Tina Larson of Portland. “He talked about the small business man, and it has been a long time since we have heard that.”
Some Parkrose students were in awe just to be able to see the President so clearly. “It was cool sitting 200 feet from the President even though I didn’t agree with what he said,” said Samantha Dillman, a Parkrose senior. Dillman said she and her friend, Janette Cullins, received their tickets by winning a lottery at school.
Sen. Smith, up for re-election this November, brought the crowd to its feet as he introduced the President and presented him with a green University of Oregon football jacket.
“Mr. President, we know that in a few weeks the Miami Hurricanes will be in the White House,” Sen. Smith said. “We understand that, but we also want you to remember that the Ducks weren’t invited.”
Music, speakers and introductions of Portland-area politicos enchanted the crowd during the long wait for the President. The Parkrose High School Debonaire Choir performed a medley of show tunes. Salem music teacher Rosalie Karalekas and her daughter Nicole performed the song “Dear Mr. President, The Children are Counting on You,” which Rosalie wrote following the September 11 attacks.
Miss America Katie Harman, a 21-year-old Gresham native, warmed the crowd with two songs – including “God Bless America” – and a speech about bravery during bad times.
“Being a person that is a member of Generation X, this is a time for the young people to rise up in our nation and to assume responsibility for the position we will once have in this nation,” she said. “We will be the future leaders.”
The war in Afghanistan and the broader war on terrorism brought many of the protesters out on the frigid streets of Portland. Many held signs, sang songs and yelled chants. Nearly 400 protesters waited for Bush – and the crowd – to leave the high school to swing the protest into full fury.
“I am out here to protest Bush, I am out here to protest the war and I am out here in defiance from these people here kicking us out of the street,” Alison Musillani of Monmouth said. Officers on horseback entered the street when protesters – and the Noise Brigade, a 15-piece drum, trombone and bullhorn band – entered traffic in front of the high school. They warned the protesters to vacate the street.
After the police had the protesters out of the street and lined up in a parking lot across from the school, the protesters started chanting anti-war and anti-police slogans. As the first airplane took off from nearby Portland International Airport, protesters declared it was Air Force One and screamed defiantly while waving their signs in the air.