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Bush Tries for Damage Control at a Critical Point

Tuesday 6 September 2005

By Doyle McManus

It took him most of a week to get there, but President Bush accomplished several goals Friday on his tour of the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He brought comfort to some of the uncounted homeless. He lent encouragement to emergency workers battling to save those still in danger.

And, not least, he launched a rescue mission to restore his own image after mounting criticism of an apparent shortage of federal leadership.

During four days of chaos in New Orleans, Bush and his aides had issued upbeat statements that help was on the way. But in the face of televised images of horrifying anarchy, some senior Republicans warned the White House that it needed to change its tone.

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a potential GOP presidential candidate, called the situation "an embarrassment," and other Republicans said they had privately urged the White House to act.

"It was a sluggish response, almost a White House in slow motion," said David Gergen, a former advisor to Presidents Reagan and Clinton. "Americans expect not only to see their president on the scene, but a firm hand on the tiller. That wasn’t there. There was nobody in charge."

Questions about whether anyone is in charge of the nation’s affairs are never a good thing for a president. But the post-hurricane crisis arrived at an especially perilous moment for Bush, whose popularity has been battered by rising gasoline prices and public unease over the war in Iraq.

Political analysts said it was too early to tell whether the issue could affect the next congressional election, at the midpoint of Bush’s term in 2006.

"It’s too far out to extrapolate," said Charlie Cook, an independent political analyst. "But for now, House and Senate Republicans are pretty much joined at the hip with the president.... When he falls in the polls, it’s not good for them."

On Friday morning, Bush acknowledged for the first time that all was not well.

"The results are not acceptable," he told reporters as he left the White House for the Gulf Coast. "I want to assure the people of the affected areas and this country that we’ll deploy the assets necessary to get the situation under control."

Later, in Biloxi, Miss., Bush fine-tuned his message, saying the federal government - his administration - had done everything it could, only to be overwhelmed by nature. "I am satisfied with the [federal] response," Bush said. "I’m not satisfied with all the results.... I’m certainly not denigrating the efforts of anybody. But the results can be better in New Orleans, and I intend to work with the folks to make it better."

To underline the message, he made a point of praising the chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael D. Brown, who coordinated federal efforts to prepare for the storm.

Bush’s statements appeared aimed at delivering a carefully targeted message: The "results" in New Orleans have not been good, but that doesn’t mean anyone in the Bush administration failed to prepare adequately for the hurricane.

"It’s as if he’s trying to have it both ways," Gergen said.

And at the end of the day, standing on the tarmac at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in Kenner, the president struck an upbeat note. He called for a national recovery effort and joked that its goal would be to rebuild a hard-partying city "where I used to come ... to enjoy myself, occasionally too much."

"I understand we got a lot of work to do," Bush said. "And I understand it seems dark right now. But by working together and pulling together and capturing that great spirit of our country, a great city will rise again."

Gergen, who now teaches at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, said he believed Bush had made a strong if belated effort at correcting his administration’s slow start.

"He made a pivot today that was important: He acknowledged that the results have been unacceptable," Gergen said. "That was an important embrace of reality that was missing from their early statements. It gives him a chance to rally.

"If food pours in, if the National Guard pours in, he’s pivoted out of a period of fumbling into a period of ’We’re taking charge.’ "

"I think he still has time to recover politically, and I think it’s likely he will," Gergen said. "He’s good at this. You’ll see a better Bush during the next few days, in charge and compassionate. But if he doesn’t, there’s going to be a serious political price to pay."

"They seem to be getting it together," agreed James Carville, a former advisor to Clinton. "How much damage will the picture of people spending four or five days on rooftops do? That depends on how well it goes from here on out."

First Lady Laura Bush was blunter than her husband when she visited hurricane refugees in Lafayette, La., on Friday, faulting federal agencies for their performance. "This response is not an adequate response," she said. "This is not the kind of response the federal government wants. We know that we can do it better."

Bush and other officials have attempted to stave off the question of whether the federal government was sufficiently prepared for the storm, saying the focus now should be on recovery efforts. "This is not a time to get into any finger-pointing or politics," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Thursday, when reporters asked whether Bush believed the government had done all it could.

Administration officials acknowledge that Congress and the media will inevitably investigate the reasons for the government’s uneven response. But by focusing on the recovery effort, and by attempting to show that Bush is in charge, they hope to blunt the impact of any adverse findings.

"Why a White House that was so adept in most of the first term has misjudged two or three big calls in its second term ... it’s puzzling," Gergen said. He cited Bush’s abortive drive for changes in Social Security and his handling of the antiwar protests led by Cindy Sheehan, a Vacaville, Calif., woman whose son died in Iraq, as earlier missteps.

"I think they’re engulfed in a second-term syndrome," he said. "They may just be tired. They’ve had a long time in the traces, and it’s been hard work. Usually the White House team changes by the beginning of a second term, but this one hasn’t."

The White House’s uncertain response was all the more puzzling because Bush has often been an effective communicator in chief. During the president’s first term, his show of resolve after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon gave him a significant boost in popularity and prestige.

But in terms of political image-making, the chaos in New Orleans could pose an even greater challenge than Sept. 11.

"On 9/11, we were attacked by an enemy.... But there’s no foreign enemy here. There’s nobody to blame," Gergen said.

The terrorism, "as awful and terrible as it was, didn’t overwhelm the government’s capacity" to respond, said Donald Kettl, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. "Here it is impossible to deflect the issue."

Bush may also remember another presidential response to disaster: His father’s reaction to Hurricane Andrew in 1992, when that Bush administration was criticized by many Florida officials for taking as long as a week to get relief operations running.

"We learned from that one," said Carville, whose candidate, Clinton, was running against the elder Bush at the time. "When something like this happens, you got to get out in front of it. When we had our first disaster, the floods in Iowa in 1993, Clinton was right there, [saying] ’I feel your pain.’ "

Carville said Bush faces two dangers in his response to Katrina.

"The real danger they have is that people may see a linkage to Iraq, which is Bush’s signature issue," he said, noting that some have asked whether National Guard deployments overseas slowed the response to Katrina. "If people draw a connection between the two - and I don’t know that they will - that’s trouble."

The other potential problem for the president, he said, is that the aftermath of Katrina might continue to be a problem for a long time - both in Carville’s native Louisiana and in the hearing rooms of Congress. "It’s not going to go away," he warned. "It’s going to be here six months from now."

White House aides said Bush plans to maintain his focus on the issue and might revisit the damaged areas.

In an unusual move, the president decided to give his weekly Saturday radio address live this morning before television cameras in the White House Rose Garden, a way to snag an additional day of television coverage for his message of engagement and concern.

Democrats have largely held their fire so far, although the truce may not last long. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and several liberal Democratic House members have sharply criticized the administration’s response to Katrina, but most nationally prominent Democrats, including Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), have been relatively mild.

"When your opponent is in the process of hurting himself, don’t get in the way," said one top Democratic strategist, who spoke on condition he not be identified. "There will be ample time for recrimination later."

Richard A. Brody, a political scholar at Stanford University, noted that it was unlikely that any single issue could change public attitudes dramatically at this point in Bush’s presidency. "The conditions are really not ripe for any big movement, because we’re five years into this presidency, and the polarization [of public opinion] is pretty intense."

After Sept. 11, Brody noted, Bush’s popularity soared because many Democrats and independents admired his response. "Over time, it’s become harder for him to appeal to Democrats and independents," he said.

But with Bush already slipping in the polls, more setbacks would weaken his ability to carry out his second-term agenda, making it less likely he would succeed in making his tax cuts permanent, changing Social Security or eliminating the estate tax, scholars said.

"You can easily imagine the argument that we need to invest more in the public good," said George C. Edwards III of Texas A&M University. "It’s going to make it a lot harder for him ... to spend money on other things - Iraq and whatever - at the expense of domestic needs."

Is it fair to judge a president on the federal bureaucracy’s response to a natural disaster? Yes, Edwards said. "This is a legitimate test of presidential management.... After all, the president is the chief executive."

Times staff writers Ronald Brownstein, Edwin Chen, Sonni Efron and Richard Simon contributed to this analysis.