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Bush Discusses Budget Plan with Business Leaders

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here in the United States, President Bush is promoting the nearly $3 trillion dollar budget he sent to Congress. Yesterday he found a receptive audience: business leaders in Manchester, New Hampshire, but as NPR's David Greene found out, warm feelings for the President did not necessarily extend beyond the ballroom where he spoke.

DAVID GREENE, reporting:

The President came on stage with New Hampshire Republican Senator Judd Gregg and said he knows this state that's famous for its first in the nation primary, is used to political speeches.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: It's good to be back here in this state. We had a little problem scheduling a room here in this state. It turns out, a lot of Judd's colleagues are pre-booking for the '08 elections.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVID GREENE: Mr. Bush came to speak about his new budget in a state that's as fiscally conservative as they come. One of his messages was that he'll spend taxpayer money wisely. And if federal programs aren't performing, he'll cut them.

President BUSH: The point is, is that if they can't prove they're achieving good results, then the programs, in my judgment, ought to be eliminated, and/or trimmed back.

GREENE: After the speech, Linda Henderson, who says she spends her time volunteering for local causes, including the Republican Party, said she liked what she heard.

Ms. LINDA HENDERSON (Attended New Hampshire Budget Speech): That's one of the issues we should always look at: state, local, federal government. We don't mind spending money if it's working. But sometimes, we don't even bother to look once a program is enacted. So, I appreciated that.

Unidentified Woman: Claudia, do you want mushroom gravy on it?

GREENE: Right around the corner, from the hotel where Mr. Bush spoke, is the Merrimack Restaurant. It's a Manchester landmark, famous for its rack of lamb. On the wall, there are photos of all the politicians who've come to town trolling for votes, including President Bush. But owner, Maria Saitis says she is not happy with him these days.

Ms. MARIA SAITIS (Owner, Merrimack Restaurant): I don't understand how, you know, he keeps saying cutting taxes. What taxes? Every time I turn around, I pay taxes and it keeps going up. Look at the oil; I, I, we have to heat the whole building. You know, it use to cost us $12,000 a year. It already costs us $12,000 for two and a half months.

GREENE: Saitis isn't alone. The American Research Group, an independent polling firm based in Manchester, surveyed state voters at the end of December. They found Mr. Bush's approval rating at 37 percent, down from 46 percent a year earlier. Among those frustrated with the president is Rick Knowlette(ph), a retired sheet metalworker, who registers Independent. We caught up with him loading his groceries at a supermarket. He says on national security, he agrees with the president.

Mr. RICK KNOWLETTE (Retired Sheet Metalworker, New Hampshire): This spying thing, you know with the phone-tapping thing, I think that's a good thing. You know, somebody chatting over there with these terrorists and stuff, why not listen to that? Why not stop it right away?

GREENE: But he says when it comes to economic issues, he says Mr. Bush has dropped the ball.

Mr. KNOWLETTE: What's our deficit now? I mean, it's going off the chart. Big deal, he gave us a little kickback for our taxes. What did he give? Families, five, $800; why didn't he just turn that back over and try to lower the deficit?

GREENE: Mr. Bush says he can lower the deficit while also extending tax cuts. But Dick Bennett, who directs the American Research Group that directed the state poll, says many voters here aren't trusting him. Bennett said many people in New Hampshire take part in town hall meetings and take ownership of their government. They demand results, he said. And when it comes to Iraq, the hurricanes on the Gulf Coast, and the federal deficit, many say they don't like what they've seen.

Mr. DICK BENNETT (President, American Research Group): The voters in New Hampshire give a president a lot of leeway if there's the performance. But they tell us is, that on a number of issues he's just, he's not performing well.

GREENE: Mr. Bush says he makes his decisions based on performance and results. At least, some voters in the Granite State seem to be doing the same.

David Greene, NPR News in Manchester, New Hampshire. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.