MARYLAND HEIGHTS — President Bush, buoyed by a batch of economic news that wasn't as bad as expected, predicted today that consumers are on their way to better days.
"I know it's tough times, and I know you're having to pay more at the fuel pump than you want," Bush said. "But this economy is going to come on. I'm confident it will."
After months of talking about the economy's resilience, Bush was able to pivot his latest pep talk off some encouraging signs — at least relative to the gloomy indicators of late.
Employers cut far fewer jobs in April than they did in March, although it was the fourth straight month of slashed payrolls. The unemployment rate dropped slightly, from 5.1 percent to 5 percent, which was a better-than-expected showing.
Elsewhere in the economy, the dollar gained a bit of strength, and there were even signs that food prices may be easing. Bush, reflecting on the weak and stagnant growth of the economy over the first quarter of the year, said, "That's not good enough for America."
Still, he said, consumers are just now starting to get relief from an economic package approved in February. Rebate checks of up to $600 for individuals and $1,200 for families began heading toward people's mailboxes or directly into their bank accounts this week.
Bush called it a "robust attempt to inject life" that hasn't really kicked in yet.
The president's comments, to employees at a technology plant in this St. Louis suburb, were his latest attempt to show he understands the pinch on millions of working families.
Democrats, in a deepening rift with Bush over how to help the economy recover, maintain his rhetoric shows he's out of touch. Democratic leaders in Congress want more relief to be provided, including additional unemployment benefits.
"It's time for President Bush to be realistic about the economy and start working with the Congress on a second economic stimulus package that will deliver real relief to Americans now," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, head of the House Democratic Caucus.
Bush has rejected those calls for now, saying the first plan should be given a chance to work. The stimulus package also includes tax breaks to encourage businesses to invest.
The climb back to economic health is a steep one.
A massive housing slump, a credit crunch and turmoil in the financial markets have combined to sour the economy and the nation's mood. Families are feeling the pinch at the grocery store and the gas pump, and many worry about keeping their jobs or their homes.
Even as consumer confidence slumps, Bush is prodding the nation to keep perspective.
"We have been through a recession, we have been through a terrorist attack, we have been at war, we have had corporate scandals, we have had major natural disasters," Bush said. "And yet this economy always recovers."
Addressing soaring gasoline prices, Bush said he understands the "pain" consumers are feeling. He pressed Congress to allow more drilling for oil in areas where it is now prohibited, and to encourage the construction of more oil refineries — both familiar calls.
He stood in the middle of a stage, touched on a number of topics as he took questions from the audience. He was upbeat all the way.
"I've got a lot on my mind, by the way," Bush cautioned the crowd. "I'm getting ready to march down the aisle."
The president's daughter Jenna is getting married next weekend.
Asked about his plans after his presidency, Bush said, "I'm headed home" to Texas. He spoke broadly of promoting freedom, a focus of his planned presidential library.
Never a fan of discussing his legacy, Bush did get reflective on his time at the White House. He said after all the good days and the bad days, he remains optimistic.
"Interestingly enough, it is a lot harder to have been the son of the president than to be the president," he said. "And so it's been a joyous experience."
Bush headed to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, for the weekend after his speech.