Warning of a possible economic downturn, President-elect Bush named businessman Paul O'Neill as his treasury secretary on Wednesday, saying O'Neill's corporate experience and steady hand will guide the country if times turn rough.
In a second installment of Cabinet nominations later in the day, Bush named Californian Ann Veneman to be the first woman secretary of agriculture; Mel Martinez, a Cuban refugee and county government leader in Florida, as secretary of housing and urban development; and his ``lifelong friend' and campaign chairman Don Evans, secretary of commerce.``Now is no time for small plans or shrinking ambitions,' Evans said.
The treasury nomination stood alone, with a Bush message on its importance to the new administration.
``Our economy is showing warning signs of a possible slowdown,' said Bush. ``So it is incredibly important for me to find someone who had vast experience, who is a steady hand, who when he speaks, speaks with authority and conviction and knowledge. I found such a man in Paul O'Neill.'
In between filling his Cabinet, Bush was closing a chapter of his life. The two-term Texas governor cleared his things out of his office at the Capitol, including his collection of autographed baseballs, one day before he turns in his resignation. ``I'm going to miss this place,' he said.
Bush also met with some 30 leaders of religious and charitable organizations, about a third black, at a church in Austin to talk about his initiative to make it easier for faith-based groups to get government contracts to provide social services for the poor and needy.
Bush fared poorly at the polls among blacks, losing their votes 9-to-1 to Al Gore. After the meeting, which was closed to press, Bush noted, ``Not everybody here voted for me ... I'm hoping to find one or two.'
He said he wanted to ``rally the people of good faith and good heart' to put ``their faith and their love and their compassion into action.'
The 65-year-old O'Neill is chairman of aluminum giant Alcoa, ran another giant company - International Paper Co. - and was deputy budget manager during the Ford Administration.
He said he decided to return to public life to help Bush ``achieve the greatness that I believe he aspires to for America.'
Evans, 54, is chief executive of Tom Brown Inc., a Denver-based oil and gas company with an office in Midland. He was instrumental in helping Bush raise a record $100 million for his presidential race, then helped guide the campaign to a narrow victory over Vice President Al Gore.
Martinez, chairman of Orange County, Fla. - which encompasses Orlando - co-chaired Bush's campaign in Florida and is a close ally of his brother Jeb, the state's Republican governor. Martinez, 54, fled Cuba to the United States in 1962 when he was 15 years old.
``I had no family. I was alone. I did not speak the language,' recalled Martinez. He said his nomination was proof that ``regardless where you come from, what language you speak, the color of your skin, or your economic circumstances, if you share the dream of a brighter tomorrow ... all things are possible.'
Bush flubbed Martinez's title-to-be, saying he was nominating the chairman for ``secretary of Housing and Human Development.'
Veneman, 51, served as director of the California Food and Agriculture Department from 1996 to 1998. Appointed by former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, she was the first woman to head the agency. She was also the highest-ranking woman in the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1989 to 1991, when Bush's father was president.
Bush has been sounding warnings about a weakening economy and talking up his proposal to cut tax rates across the board to put more money in people's wallets. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill of both political stripes have expressed reservations about whether his proposed $1.3 trillion, 10-year tax cut, rather than incremental reductions, is the right approach, but Bush reiterated Wednesday that he wants a broad tax cut.
``I believe strongly that tax relief is part of the prescription for any economic ill that our nation may have,' said Bush, flanked on either side by O'Neill and Vice President-elect Dick Cheney, who worked with O'Neill under President Ford.
Asked if talking about an economic downturn increases the chances it will happen, Bush said, ``One of my jobs is to think ahead, just in case.'
``We are going to play the hand we were dealt,' Bush said. ``Our hope in this administration is our economy remain robust. But should it not, we have a plan, the cornerstone of which will be tax relief, free trade, Social Security reform, less regulation.'
White House spokesman Jake Siewart said the economy was much stronger than it was when President Clinton took office eight years ago. ``Talking the economy down can become a self-fulfilling prophecy,' he warned.
With winter storms whipping the country and heating bills soaring because of high gas prices, Bush was questioned about his energy policy and asked whether his administration could do anything in the short term to help consumers struggling to pay utility bills.
The president-elect said he would work with Congress to fund a program that helps poor consumers with their heating bills.
Bush said increasing U.S. production of natural gas should be a priority because there are vast untapped supplies. He said he wants to review federal land policy to make sure that ``we're not missing an opportunity to explore for natural gas in the country' and said he would seek to remove obstacles that prevent construction of gas pipelines.
Bush wants Congress to pass legislation earmarking money for clean coal technologies to use those reserve without ruining the environment. Bush said he also would seek ``a hemispheric energy policy' to make sure there are ample supplies.
He talked tough about oil producing nations, saying they should ``treat their friend, the United States, and our market with ease.
``One of the things we're going to have to do is start up a strong diplomatic effort to work with .. our friends in the Middle East, to have an energy policy there that is respectful to their friend here and other democracies,' said Bush.
He said he will work with OPEC nations to convince them to open up the spigots and ease price pressures.