It's about time. The U.S. manufacturing sector has shed jobs for 37 straight months -- a total of 2.7 million jobs over three painful years -- and President George W. Bush is only now announcing the beginnings of a targeted plan to help stem the bleeding. On Labor Day, when he announced a new assistant secretary for manufacturing, the President finally acknowledged that the manufacturing sector needs help from the federal government. Soon thereafter, Commerce Secretary Donald Evans outlined four other initiatives designed to address manufacturers' concerns. After years of refusing to act on behalf of all manufacturers, Bush and Evans didn't even wait the few additional weeks to read the Commerce Undersecretary's analysis of the manufacturing sector -- their excuse for delaying action for the last six months. They couldn't. The delay has come at a great cost to Bush, the manufacturing community and the nation; further delays will exact an even higher price. The administration's belated rush to help, coming during the run-up to the 2004 presidential elections, has left Bush open to charges of political posturing and created rifts within the Republican ranks. Worse, the firestorm of protest against government inaction has ignited what is close to becoming a raging protectionist wildfire that threatens to engulf the nation, damaging U.S. leadership in establishing free trade throughout the world. While we waited, no fewer than five manufacturing lobbying associations with names such as "MAD in the USA" and "Save American Manufacturing" have sprouted up. Formed by small business owners who consider themselves to be Republicans, they back legislation that could be construed as protectionist and promise to work against politicians who back free-trade legislation. On Sept. 9, three Republicans joined two Democrats in sponsoring legislation that would impose an across-the-board tariff increase of 27.5% on Chinese imports. Even if you view these threats as largely symbolic attempts to gain attention, it's a sad commentary of how desperate the manufacturing community is for help. Still, we eagerly await details on this latest plan, which the Bush administration promises to deliver once it has reviewed the Undersecretary's report. As it stands now, the plan amounts to little more than rearranging and renaming existing government duties. Evans says the assistant secretary for manufacturing will be the point person for manufacturers within the administration, will work with various government agencies and, with the new Office of Industry Analysis, will assess the economic impact of new rules and regulations. IndustryWeek and other manufacturing advocates support the creation of this position. However, to strengthen U.S. manufacturing, it needs to have real authority to bring together various government agencies in a focused and effective team. As for another government agency assessing the economic impact of new rules and regulations, the White House Office of Management and Budget already does that. Likewise, the creation of an Unfair Trade Practices Team that will "detect, track and confront unfair competition," falls flat; the U.S. Trade Representative already does that. The other two initiatives, a new assistant secretary for trade promotion to consolidate the Commerce Department's export promotion efforts and an initiative to increase access for small and midsize manufacturers to global supply chains, both sound good. They will bolster manufacturers' attempts to expand exports, which are essential to our nation's manufacturing future. Manufacturing executives know the federal government cannot save them from the pain of the structural change that's under way. However, they expect it to defend manufacturing's interests in the face of unfair competition and to create a business environment in which manufacturing can flourish. The Bush administration's recent initiatives are a good start, but they must be fleshed out and executed. We've no more time to lose. Patricia Panchak is IW's editor-in-chief. She is based in Cleveland.