Partisan Squabble or Dereliction of Duty?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, September 8, 2005; 2:51 PM

White House officials must be breathing a sigh of relief about the news coverage this morning that increasingly depicts the controversy over the government's response to the Gulf Coast disaster as a largely -- or even purely -- partisan issue.

If the initial sense of public outrage really becomes just another red vs. blue battle, then President Bush is likely to emerge no better or worse off than he was before.

By contrast, the nightmare scenario for the White House is if it becomes generally agreed upon that the public sense of horror -- from red states and blue states alike -- requires an immediate accounting of what went wrong. Because there is plenty of blame to go around and some -- if not a lot -- will inevitably land at Bush's feet.

Is holding those accountable a partisan issue? To some degree, evidently so. The leading voices demanding answers from the federal government have mostly been Democratic, while Republican leaders are pointing fingers at local officials. And polls show that party affiliation has an enormous effect on people's initial opinion on whether Bush has conducted himself admirably or not.

But the heartfelt disappointment and poignant questions about the rescue efforts may in fact be spilling forth from a wider, nonpartisan American vein. For example, many rank and file Congressional Republicans remain publicly aghast at the federal government's response.

Polarizing the electorate has been a successful strategy for this White House. That's not what they fear. But if the poll numbers start to shift precipitously -- and if even a chunk of Bush's core supporters come to the conclusion that he dropped the ball -- then Katrina could be something new for the White House. And something very dangerous indeed.

When Democrats Attack

Adam Nagourney and Carl Hulse write in the New York Times: "After 10 days of often uncertain responses to the Bush administration's management of Hurricane Katrina, Democratic leaders unleashed a burst of attacks on the White House on Wednesday, saying the wreckage in New Orleans raised doubts about the country's readiness to endure a terrorist attack and exposed ominous economic rifts that they said had worsened under five years of Republican rule. . . .

"The aggressiveness was evidence of what Republicans and Democrats said was the critical difference between the hurricane and the Sept. 11 attacks: Democrats appear able to question the administration's competence without opening themselves to attacks on their patriotism.

"Not insignificantly, they have been emboldened by the fact that Republicans have also been critical of the White House over the past week, and by the perception that this normally politically astute and lethal administration has been weakened and seems at a loss as it struggles to manage two crises: the aftermath of the hurricane on the Gulf Coast and the political difficulties that it has created for Mr. Bush in Washington."

Jennifer Loven and David Espo write in the Associated Press: "Congress' top two Democrats furiously criticized the administration's response to Hurricane Katrina on Wednesday, with Sen. Harry Reid demanding to know whether President Bush's Texas vacation impeded relief efforts and Rep. Nancy Pelosi assailing the chief executive as "oblivious, in denial" about the difficulties. . . .

"At a news conference, Pelosi, D-Calif., said Bush's choice for head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency had 'absolutely no credentials.' "She related that she had urged Bush at the White House on Tuesday to fire Michael Brown.

" 'He said "Why would I do that?' " Pelosi said.

" 'I said because of all that went wrong, of all that didn't go right last week.' And he said 'What didn't go right?' "

" 'Oblivious, in denial, dangerous,' she added."

(Spokesman Scott McClellan yesterday responded: "I think the President was just wanting to know what she -- what she was most concerned about.")

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "Lending further evidence that Katrina is rapidly becoming a war between the parties, the political action committee of MoveOn.org announced a public rally across from the White House this afternoon. It is to include evacuees demanding the president 'acknowledge that budget cuts and indifference by his administration led to the disaster in New Orleans and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.' "

Balz touches on the lack of public criticism from former president Clinton. "Clinton does not want to jeopardize what has become both a working relationship and a friendship with the elder Bush," Balz writes.

But, he adds: "Privately, Clinton has been incredulous over what he regards as the administration's failure to grasp quickly the perilous situation materializing in New Orleans, particularly for poor African Americans."

The Economist writes that "both Republicans and Democrats were appalled at Mr Bush's failure to grasp the scale of the catastrophe; shocked that his senior staff were absent, or on holiday, while thousands of Americans were stranded without food and water; and aghast at the bumbling response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is charged with coping when disasters strike."

Poll Watch

A new Zogby poll shows Bush's job approval rating taking a hit in the wake of Katrina, dropping to an all-time low in that survey of 41 percent.

Only 36 percent said Bush's handling of the hurricane was excellent or good; 60 percent said it was fair or poor.

Looking at the party breakdown , some 89 percent of Democrats gave Bush low ratings on the hurricane response, compared to 67 percent of independents and 29 percent of Republicans.

And a new CBS poll finds 38 percent approval for Bush's response, compared to 58 percent disapproval.

Writes CBS: "President Bush's image appears to have suffered in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The public now has lower confidence in his response to crisis, and his leadership in general.

"Now, just 48% of Americans say Bush has strong qualities of leadership -- the lowest number ever for the President in this poll.

"Moreover, just 32% express 'a lot' of confidence in the President's ability to handle a crisis. This is a sharp change from four years ago when, in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks, 66% expressed 'a lot' of confidence in Bush's ability to handle a crisis."

The poll finds Bush's overall approval rating "virtually unchanged from last week" at 42 percent.

Losing His Footing?

David Gregory writes in an NBC blog: "In the nearly six years I have covered this President, I'm not sure I've seen him at such a critical impasse. Tuesday we saw day one of a White House trying to match the level of engagement it had after the 9/11 attacks. This time, however, there is no rallying around the flag. Instead, the President is on the defensive and under pressure to fire those responsible for managing a crisis of this dimension. Even more frightening is the question on every American's mind: Could the government handle a massive terror strike - the kind that Vice President Cheney and others warn us about?"

Bill Straub summarizes Bush's missteps for the Scripps Howard News Service.

Bill Adair writes in the St. Petersburg Times: "President Bush has worked hard to avoid the mistakes of his father. . . .

"But in responding to Hurricane Katrina, Bush seems to have forgotten the lessons of Hurricane Andrew, the South Florida storm that was a black eye for his father. . . .

"The lessons of Andrew were that the feds should communicate better with the states, that the federal government should be ready to move in swiftly with plenty of resources after a storm and that bureaucracy should not hamper the recovery.

"But those lessons seem to be forgotten."

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write on Newsweek.com: "Over the last five and a half years, President George W. Bush has developed his own theory of good government and successful democracies: it's all about the potholes. They're not always real potholes, of course. But they are real-life problems that all officials-from presidents down to mayors-have to fix, or else face the wrath of the voters. So whenever he delivers a speech with a mayor in attendance, Bush offers this unsolicited advice: 'Fix the potholes.' . . .

"Bush may not be running for office again, but this is his pothole moment."

Or Regaining His Footing?

Nina J. Easton writes in the Boston Globe: "Reeling from criticism of President Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina, some Republican strategists are invoking a comparison with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when initial concern over the president's response gave way to widespread respect for his leadership. . . .

"But Democratic critics say that, this time, the public's first impression will be the lasting one. . . .

"The president's supporters acknowledge that shifting the political narrative from one in which Bush is cast as aloof or incompetent to one in which a caught-off-guard chief rises to the occasion will work only if conditions on the battered Gulf Coast continue to improve."

Too Many Chefs?

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "There are an awful lot of chiefs around the White House these days when it comes to Hurricane Katrina."

She offers up quite a list. There's Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., Vice President Cheney -- all of whom have leadership roles -- not to mention Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin, nine working groups, and much more.

"[T]he large cast of sometimes-changing aides being thrown at the response is contributing to a perception that the president has not taken complete control of the situation himself, said Paul Light, a professor of organizational studies at New York University. . . .

"White House spokesman Scott McClellan said there is no need for confusion about who is running things.

" 'This is a massive catastrophe and it requires a massive response with all hands on deck,' he said. 'There are clear lines of authority and responsibility. . . . Ultimately the president is in charge.' "

FEMA and the Dead

The unforgettable televised images of suffering Americans left to fend for themselves were a shock to our sense of self. And the bringing out of the dead will be a continuing reminder of our shame. Assuming the public will be allowed to see it.

One way to cut down on the searing images of government failure, of course, is for the government to ban them.

Deborah Zabarenko writes for Reuters: "When U.S. officials asked the media not to take pictures of those killed by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, they were censoring a key part of the disaster story, free speech watchdogs said on Wednesday.

"The move by the Federal Emergency Management Agency is in line with the Bush administration's ban on images of flag-draped U.S. military coffins returning from the Iraq war, media monitors said in separate telephone interviews.

" 'It's impossible for me to imagine how you report a story whose subject is death without allowing the public to see images of the subject of the story,' said Larry Siems of the PEN American Center, an authors' group that defends free expression. . . .

"In an e-mail explaining the decision, a FEMA spokeswoman wrote: 'The recovery of victims is being treated with dignity and the utmost respect and we have requested that no photographs of the deceased by made by the media.' "

Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Gail Shister notes that photographers may be able to circumvent the problem.

"FEMA has no official policy on photographing bodies, says agency rep Mark Pfeifle. It does, however, advise against the practice out of respect for the families of dead and missing loved ones, he says.

And the government "cannot prevent journalists in New Orleans from following FEMA's boats in their own vessels during recovery missions," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Paper Trail

Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball write in Newsweek.com: "In the weeks before Hurricane Katrina, state emergency-planning directors repeatedly warned that the Bush administration's post-September 11 focus on terrorism was seriously undercutting the federal government's ability to respond to catastrophic hurricanes and other natural disasters. . . .

"Not only did the Bush administration slash funding for natural-disaster planning this year, the state directors charged, Homeland Security-acting under a directive signed by the president-has geared almost all planning exercises with the states to responding to hypothetical terror attacks such as radioactive 'dirty bombs' or anthrax attacks rather than far more common, and costly, disasters such as hurricanes, tornados and floods."

The GOP Inquiry

Republican Congressional leaders on Wednesday announced a joint House-Senate inquiry into failures surrounding the response to Hurricane Katrina. There were notably no Democrats present for the announcement.

Jonathan Weisman and Amy Goldstein write in The Washington Post: "The joint inquiry, launched by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., a day after the White House announced its own investigation, will wield subpoena power and is billed as a bipartisan enterprise, although Republicans will dominate the committee. It will be the first joint investigation since the Iran-Contra probe of the 1980s. . . .

"Democratic leaders responded to the joint-congressional investigation by calling again for an independent probe similar to the investigation of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. 'An investigation of the Republican Administration by a Republican-controlled Congress is like having a pitcher call his own balls and strikes,' said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev."

Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times: "The decision by House and Senate Republican leaders to press forward with a rare bicameral investigation reflected an intense push to quell the furor surrounding the hurricane relief effort and respond to worries by members of their own party that majority Republicans were suffering politically."

Yesterday's Grilling

Here is the text of yesterday's press briefing by McClellan.

Hulse writes in the Times: "At the White House, Scott McClellan, its spokesman, was pressed about whether Mr. Bush still had confidence in the FEMA director. Mr. McClellan declined to answer that question, arguing that it was part of an effort by reporters to fix responsibility for the federal response on some member of the administration. 'This is where some people want to look at the blame-game issue, and finger-point,' he said.

"After repeated questions, Mr. McClellan concluded his daily briefing by saying that the president was appreciative of all of the efforts by employees of FEMA, Mr. Brown included, and that Mr. Bush stood by his praise of Mr. Brown last week."

NBC's David Gregory was the reporter who so dramatically tried to get that answer.

For yesterday's Scott and David show, go to the transcript and start at:

"Q Scott, does the President retain confidence in his FEMA Director and Secretary of Homeland Security?"

You can stop at: "Q That's a dodge."

Meanwhile, rank and file members of the press corps are increasingly frustrated with McClellan. One reporter suggested that they get T shirts made up emblazoned with one of Tuesday's more goading questions: "Is 'Brownie' still doing a heck of a job?"

Cheney's Day

Cheney, along with his wife, are touring the Gulf Coast today -- sent by Bush to report back on progress.

First stop is Gulfport, Miss., for a meeting with local leaders, then a briefing from relief workers, a tour of a damaged neighborhood and a press availability.

Then it's off to the USS Iwo Jima, stationed off New Orleans, for a meeting. Then a visit to the 17th Street Canal levee repair area, for another press availablity. Then a stop in Baton Rouge to meet with local leaders before heading back home.

Just like with Bush, there will be no wading through the muck.

Change of Topic, Part I

Bill Hutchison writes in the New York Daily News: "In a White House ceremony tomorrow, President Bush will hand out the Medal of Valor to the families of 443 public safety officers who perished during the Sept. 11 attacks four years ago.

"The President is expecting about 1,200 loved ones of the fallen heroes to gather on the lawn of the White House and receive the federal government's highest honor."

Change of Topic, Part II

The Associated Press reports: "President Bush, who canceled a visit this week with the president of China because of Hurricane Katrina, will meet next Tuesday with the president of Iraq.

"Bush will host Iraqi President Jalal Talabani at the White House before traveling to New York to attend a meeting at the United Nations."

Borzou Daragahi writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Talabani, a rotund and bespectacled leader of Iraq's mostly pro-American Kurdish minority, said he wasn't coming to Washington 'to make propaganda' for President Bush amid mounting criticism of his handling of the war. Nevertheless, he said he planned to shower Bush and the U.S. with gratitude for overthrowing Hussein.

" 'I consider President George W. Bush as one of the greatest leaders of the United States,' he said, 'and he's the hero of the liberation of Iraq.' "

Rehnquist Funeral

Charles Lane writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush led official Washington yesterday in remembrance of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist at a funeral service that offered an unusual personal glimpse of a man whose 33-year Supreme Court tenure made him one of the more consequential figures in U.S. judicial history."

Here is the text of Bush's eulogy.

Roberts Watch

Jo Becker writes in The Washington Post that the White House is still refusing to turn over memos and other documents that John Roberts handled from 1989 to 1993 as principal deputy solicitor general.

"The documents offer a rare glimpse into a time in Roberts's life that has remained largely shrouded, on an issue that is likely to be central to next week's hearings: Roberts's civil rights record."

Not Dead Yet

Keith Koffler reports for Congress Daily (subscription required): "Although relief for the victims of Hurricane Katrina is now his highest priority, President Bush will press Congress to enact his domestic agenda, according to White House aides. . . .

" 'A large part of the response to the hurricane's impact is to jump-start the region's economy, which requires a vibrant national economy,' said White House Deputy Press Secretary Trent Duffy.

"Duffy asserted that the vast spending that would be required to address the hurricane's impact adds to the need to change Social Security, which threatens to strain the budget in coming years."

Barbara Bush Watch

The Associated Press reports: "Barbara Bush was making 'a personal observation' when she said poor people at a relocation center in Houston were faring better than before Hurricane Katrina struck, President Bush's spokesman said Wednesday.

"Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, did not answer directly when asked if the president agreed with his mother's remarks."

Agence France Presse reprises the various Bush family utterances that have combined to create the impression that they may not fully understand the plight of the less fortunate.

Kanye West Watch

A wildly successful rapper has become an unusual focal point for criticisms of Bush's response to the suffering in New Orleans.

Jim Farber writes in the New York Daily News: "It might not thrill President Bush, but one of his most vocal new foes, Kanye West, has racked up the second-biggest opening-sales week of the year.

" 'Late Registration,' the sophomore CD from the opinion-filled rapper, opened at No. 1 on Billboard's latest Top 200 Album chart, with bang-up sales of 862,582 copies. . . .

"It's unclear to what extent West's sales were boosted by his unscripted screed against the President's response to the New Orleans disaster, which he injected into Friday's 'Concert for Hurricane Relief' on NBC."

In case you missed it, Lisa de Moraes wrote in Saturday's Washington Post about West's surprising torrent of criticism: "America is set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off, as slow as possible," West said in comments cut out of the West Coast feed. "George Bush doesn't care about black people!"

Late Night Humor

From the "Tonight Show With Jay Leno": "Actually, today, President Bush sent Vice President Dick Cheney to New Orleans. Is that what we need down there? Another person requiring emergency medical help?"

From Jon Stewart on the "Daily Show": "Little observation: When people don't want to play the blame game? They're to blame."

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