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Bush Tries for Damage Control at a Critical Point

September 03, 2005|Doyle McManus | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — 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."

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