HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- President Clinton defended his stewardship of the U.S. economy in both formal and impromptu forums here yesterday -- thumping the podium in a Labor Day speech and taking rhetorical swings at a heckler while touring communities struck last year by the fury of Hurricane Andrew.
"This year, over 1 million jobs have been added to our economy. That's about as many as were added during the previous four years in America," said Mr. Clinton in a Labor Day speech in the Cutler Ridge neighborhood of south Dade County.
Mr. Clinton told a friendly crowd that the AFL-CIO and his administration would join in a $1.2 billion public-private partnership to build 12,000 housing units and create 15,000 jobs. Under the plan, the quasi-public entities known as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will guarantee some $600 million in loans for home construction by labor union pension funds.
Mr. Clinton also hailed the effects of the economic plan passed by Congress last month. He said the measure has resulted in the lowest interest rates in 25 years, while cutting taxes on millions of low-income working families.
But his own administration's reports have described a U.S. economy that remains stuck in low gear, and Mr. Clinton seemed anxious to defend his administration when confronted by the heckler at a stop here.
The critic declined to give his name, but he seized the president's attention when, as Mr. Clinton shook hands with well-wishers, he challenged Mr. Clinton to "name one country that has taxed and spent its way to prosperity."
Mr. Clinton responded by inviting the man to "name one country that borrowed and spent itself into prosperity and went from a [$1 trillion] to a $4 trillion debt." The president walked away, shaking more hands, but the heckler had bugged him and soon he was back.
"One fact question!" Mr. Clinton demanded. "Did the last two presidents or the Democratic Congress recommend the largest amount of spending and the biggest deficit in the last 12 years? Answer: the last two presidents."
Again, Mr. Clinton strolled away, but the heckler shouted back: "The Democrats did! The Democrats did!" The chant caused Mr. Clinton to freeze in his tracks and, unable to let the man have the last word, turn back to his critic.
"You guys have got to quit begging off the responsibility and join us," the
president called out, smiling and waving his finger at the man. "You never answered my question."
The spirited exchange took place after Mr. Clinton toured the still-ravaged neighborhoods of south Dade County, where thousands of Florida residents are still trying to rebuild their lives, one year after Hurricane Andrew.
Mr. Clinton's motorcade wound through Florida City, Homestead and other communities that suffered the brunt of the $20 billion in damage caused by the hurricane. He drove by three of the trailer camps where some 3,000 refugees from the storm still live in federal emergency housing.
Whole communities have been abandoned and fenced off with barbed wire: In these neighborhoods the damage was so extensive that residents voted not to rebuild. The county's population has dropped by 27 percent, now that 100,000 people have left to start over elsewhere.
Mr. Clinton also held a town meeting at a senior citizens' center in Homestead, where his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton; Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich; Henry G. Cisneros, the secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development; and other federal officials listened as relief workers and residents explained their travails.
"We will be with you," Mr. Clinton said. "Give us a chance to help."