Bush Losing Support From His Base

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, September 9, 2005; 1:36 PM

Through thick and thin, President Bush has always maintained the ferocious backing of his Republican base.

Until now?

As I wrote in yesterday's column , partisan squabbles are something the Bush White House has found it can handle just fine, because the base hangs tough. But public outrage over the Hurricane Katrina debacle has the potential to transcend politics as usual.

And quite possibly, something is up.

According to the latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press , Bush's overall job approval rating has dropped to 40 percent -- an all-time low for this/that poll -- and his disapproval rating has climbed to an all-time high of 52 percent. That's a four-point shift in both numbers from July.

But look at the detailed results for the story behind the story.

That four percentage point shift from just two months ago isn't fueled by any significant change of mind among Democrats and independents. Instead, it's all a reflection of a shift in Bush's base.

Republicans polled in July said they approved of Bush by an 88 to 9 percent margin. In September, that margin was 79 to 18, reflecting a 9 percent shift from approvers to disapprovers. That's a very significant change.

Pollsters, in fact, often look at the gap between two answers as the more telling number. By that reckoning, the gap between Republican approval and disapproval has dropped from 79 to 61 -- or 18 points.

Among conservative Republicans, there was an eight-point shift, from 91-6 to 84-14. (That's a 15-point change in the gap.)

Among moderate and liberal Republicans, there was an 11-point shift, from 81-15 to 70-26. (That's a 22-point change in the gap.)

Pew asked specifically about Bush's handling of Katrina relief efforts and found: "Two-in-three Americans (67 percent) believe he could have done more to speed up relief efforts, while just 28 percent think he did all he could to get them going quickly. . . .

"Fully 85 percent of Democrats and 71 percent of independents think the president could have done more to get aid to hurricane victims flowing more quickly. Republicans, on balance, feel the president did all he could to get relief efforts going, but even among his own partisans 40 percent say he could have done more."

Will Lester of the Associated Press has word of the latest AP-Ipsos poll, just out this morning: "Almost two-thirds, 65 percent, say the country is headed in the wrong direction -- up from 59 percent last month.

"President Bush's job approval was at 39 percent, the lowest point since AP-Ipsos began measuring public approval of Bush in December 2003."

And don't forget the two polls I mentioned yesterday -- from CBS and Zogby -- which showed disapproval with Bush's response to the hurricane at 58 percent and 60 percent, respectively.

Could the Bubble Be the Trouble?

Steven Thomma writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "As President Bush flew this week to the Gulf Coast for his second post-Katrina visit, an aide said the trip reflected Bush's usual routine of 'seeing as much as possible and getting information from different places.'

"Not quite.

"Bush did not visit with any angry evacuees in New Orleans. As Katrina approached, Bush and his top aides spent days apparently unaware that New Orleans might be flooded - despite many warnings, some from inside his own administration. Afterwards, he heaped praise on officials responsible for the slow and initially disorganized disaster-relief efforts. . . .

"None of this should be a surprise. Bush has a long record of avoiding critics, rewarding loyalty even in the face of failure and shunning - even punishing - those who disagree with him. . . .

"His style of isolating himself from unwelcome voices pleases his core supporters, who don't want him to compromise, but it sacrifices the broader public appeal that helped Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton weather second-term setbacks. One new poll, from the independent Pew Research Center, suggests he is losing support even from Republicans and conservatives."

Judy Keen and Richard Benedetto write in USA Today: "President Bush has shown that he can be empathetic, sensitive and decisive. But those qualities eluded him for days after Hurricane Katrina, and the lapse could become a defining moment of his White House tenure. . . .

"Bush has spoken before about the consequences of a leader's performance at moments such as this. In a 2000 debate with Democrat Al Gore, he was asked to describe how he handled crises under fire. 'It's the time to test your mettle,' Bush said then, 'a time to test your heart when you see people whose lives have been turned upside down.' "

But What Went Wrong?

Ultimately, of course, the issue of political damage control is not as important as finding out what went wrong in the government's response. What left thousands of Americans suffering and dying as they waited for days for the government to come help them?

Democrats and Republicans alike are calling for official investigations of one sort or another. But in the meantime, how about some reporting on the issue?

Eric Schmitt, Thom Shanker and Eric Lipton weigh in this morning in the New York Times with a partial glimpse into the White House's decision-making process.

"As New Orleans descended into chaos last week and Louisiana's governor asked for 40,000 soldiers, President Bush's senior advisers debated whether the president should speed the arrival of active-duty troops by seizing control of the hurricane relief mission from the governor," they write.

"[O]ne of the most pointed questions has been why more troops were not available more quickly to restore order and offer aid. Interviews with officials in Washington and Louisiana show that as the situation grew worse, they were wrangling with questions of federal/state authority, weighing the realities of military logistics and perhaps talking past each other in the crisis."

Here's one example of a missed opportunity: 82nd Airborne troops were evidently ready to move out from Fort Bragg, N.C., on Sunday, the day before the hurricane hit.

"The call never came, administration officials said, in part because military officials believed Guard troops would get to the stricken region faster and because administration civilians worried that there could be political fallout if federal troops were forced to shoot looters."

Not Like 9/11

Richard W. Stevenson in the New York Times compares the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the devastation of the Gulf Coast and writes that "while the first showed Mr. Bush capable of commanding the nation's attention, transcending partisanship and clearly articulating a set of goals, the second has left him groping to find his voice and set out a vision of how the government and the American people should respond."

Darlene Superville writes for the Associated Press: "The extraordinary showing of national and political unity displayed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is nowhere to be found in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina."

But They Can Try

Mary Dalyrmple reports for the Associated Press that the White House this morning announced that Bush will make his third trip to the Gulf Coast on Sunday -- September 11.

"Bush's trip was to follow his attendance at a church service and White House moment of silence honoring the fourth anniversary on Sunday of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. With those attacks the defining moment of Bush's presidency, the White House was seeking to evoke the national support that followed for Bush by making some links between the two. The president's Saturday radio address, for example, was to focus on both events and the government's response to them."

The Associated Press's Jennifer Loven covered Bush's speech this morning at the swearing-in for his long-time confidante, Karen Hughes, as the State Department's new undersecretary for public diplomacy.

Loven writes that Bush, "linking hurricane recovery and the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks four years ago, declared Friday that the nation was ready to 'overcome any challenge.' "

And Bush will have another chance to evoke 9/11 this afternoon.

Today's New York Post front page features what reporters Ian Bishop and Andy Geller are calling "the first look at the historic medal that President Bush will present today in an extraordinary White House ceremony to the families of 443 public-safety officers who perished on 9/11."

FEMA and the White House

Spencer S. Hsu writes in The Washington Post: "Five of eight top Federal Emergency Management Agency officials came to their posts with virtually no experience in handling disasters and now lead an agency whose ranks of seasoned crisis managers have thinned dramatically since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"FEMA's top three leaders -- Director Michael D. Brown, Chief of Staff Patrick J. Rhode and Deputy Chief of Staff Brooks D. Altshuler -- arrived with ties to President Bush's 2000 campaign or to the White House advance operation, according to the agency."

A New York Times editorial , citing a Sept. 7 Chicago Tribune story by Andrew Zajac and Andrew Martin , notes: "Mr. Altshuler and Mr. Rhode had worked in the White House's Office of National Advance Operations. Those are the people who decide where the president will stand on stage and which loyal supporters will be permitted into the audience - and how many firefighters will be diverted from rescue duty to surround the president as he patrols the New Orleans airport trying to look busy."

Craig Gordon and Daniel Wagner write in Newsday: "New questions surfaced yesterday about whether the White House inflated FEMA chief Michael Brown's past work experience when he took over the agency."

And Daren Fonda and Rita Healy write in Time about "discrepancies in his online legal profile and official bio, including a description of Brown released by the White House at the time of his nomination in 2001 to the job as deputy chief of FEMA."

Ken Silverstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Vice President Dick Cheney defended the administration's FEMA appointees in remarks to reporters Thursday."

John Dickerson writes in Slate: "If Brown hasn't yet packed up his 'me' wall, it may be because of his political utility as a scapegoat. As a focal point of public rage, Brown remains useful to Bush as a fall guy."

White House Under a Cloud

Martin Schram writes for the Scripps Howard News Service: "The eye of Hurricane Katrina apparently is still swirling 1,088 miles north-northeast of New Orleans. According to the latest Rove Radar Report warning, it is stalled ominously above 1600 Pennsylvania Ave."

David Gregory writes for NBC News: "On all fronts Thursday, it was administration damage control."

On the NBC Nightly News , Gregory replayed Barbara Bush's now notorious comment about how "so many of the people in the arenas here, you know, were underprivileged anyway. This is working very well for them."

Michael Tackett writes for the Chicago Tribune: "On Thursday, President Bush stood before a bank of television cameras--American flags arrayed behind him--to announce financial aid and other assistance for victims of Hurricane Katrina. But broadcast alongside that announcement were images from New Orleans and reports that more than a dozen bodies were being removed from a hospital. . . .

"The difficulty so far for the administration has been making the images and words match the reality that people are seeing on their screens."

First Lady to the Defense

The Associated Press reports: "Laura Bush described as 'disgusting' comments by rapper Kanye West and Democratic chairman Howard Dean blaming her husband for the disproportionate number of black hurricane victims."

The first lady also spoke at an elementary school in Mississippi yesterday. Here's the text .

"I think we've seen a lot of the same footage over and over that isn't necessarily representative of what really happened in both -- in a lot of ways. . . .

"I think overall, it was a very good response."

Angry Democrat Watch

Charles Babington writes for The Washington Post: "Democrats sharpened their criticism of the Bush administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina yesterday, refusing to participate in a Republican-controlled investigative panel and displaying a photo in the Senate of the president strumming a guitar the day New Orleans was inundated."

Mark Leibovich writes in the Washington Post about the return to Washington of Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu.

"Landrieu was at once gracious and defiant, thanking the president and then -- in her floor speech -- ridiculing his statement last week that no one 'anticipated the breach of the levees.'

" 'Everybody anticipated the breach of the levee, Mr. President,' Landrieu said."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "The senator went on to describe how the creator of Mr. Bill, the clay figurine whose cry of 'Ohh noooo!' was long a staple of 'Saturday Night Live,' had used the character in public service announcements to warn southern Louisianians of the dangers they would face in an extraordinary storm.

" 'How can it be,' she asked, 'that Mr. Bill was better informed than Mr. Bush?' "

A Czar for Katrina?

Tabassum Zakaria writes for Reuters: "Two Republican senators pressed President George W. Bush on Thursday to appoint a top official to lead the long-term recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. . . .

"Various names have been mentioned in Washington for the job, such as former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and retired Gen. Tommy Franks, former head of the U.S. Central Command."

OK, Maybe Not Powell

Reuters reports: "Colin Powell, the former U.S. secretary of state seen as a potential leader for Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts, has joined the chorus of Americans criticizing the disaster response at all levels of government."

OK, Maybe Nobody

Thomas M. DeFrank writes in the New York Daily News that "some top Bush aides think a brand-name disaster boss like Giuliani, dubbed 'America's Mayor' for his leadership after 9/11, or former secretary of state Colin Powell would remind Americans of the administration's sluggish initial response to the hurricane.

" 'You don't want someone overshadowing the President,' said an official in the 'ride it out' camp. 'That leaves him looking weak.' "

Cheney Gets Heckled

Vice President Cheney toured the Gulf Coast yesterday, holding several meetings, photo opportunities, and short press availabilities.

His first stop was in Gulfport, Miss.

Caren Bohan writes for Reuters: "While he was speaking, a young man shouted an obscenity at the vice-president, saying 'Go [expletive] yourself, Mr Cheney' in an outburst that reflected frayed tempers and patience in the stricken region.

"Cheney later toured an unflooded part of New Orleans near the convention center, seeing first-hand the debris of chairs, empty water bottles and trash. Thousands of storm survivors pleading for food, water and care stayed several days at the center last week before they were evacuated from the ruined and chaotic city."

Here's the CNN transcript of the Cheney talk and the heckling (the White House hasn't sent one out, go figure).

After the heckle, a reporter asked: "Are you getting a lot of that Mr. Vice President?"

Cheney replied: "That's the first time I've heard it. Never mind. A friend of John -- oh never mind."

On CNN, Jack Cafferty and Wolf Blitzer discussed the incident. Here's that transcript :

"CAFFERTY: The vice president said that's the first time he heard it. Didn't he utter the same phrase to Senator Patrick Leahy on the floor of the United States Senate?


"CAFFERTY: So it wasn't the first time he heard it. He said it ...

"BLITZER: It is the first time he heard it in this context of this trip.

"CAFFERTY: You know what, I'll bet it's not the last."

My question: Who is John? John Kerry?

Taking Action

Peter Baker and Amy Goldstein write in The Washington Post: "President Bush and Congress moved on multiple fronts yesterday to rush fresh relief to people afflicted by Hurricane Katrina, vowing to get cash directly into the hands of victims while enacting an unprecedented spending package to feed and house evacuees, rebuild schools and bridges, and begin clearing out the vast rubble."

But Stevenson notes in the Times: "It did not help that one aspect of the main initiative laid out by Mr. Bush on Thursday, a plan to put $2,000 in the hands of every household that needs it because of the storm, quickly became a source of confusion."

And: "Mr. Bush's effort to strike a compassionate tone were also complicated by his decision to waive a requirement that employers who receive federal government contracts related to the relief effort pay their workers the prevailing wages for that kind of work in the area it is being done."

Rearranging the Chairs?

Al Kamen writes in The Washington Post: "The on-again, off-again rumor that White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card is moving to be secretary of the treasury to replace John Snow appears to be on again. The timing, though, seems somewhat odd, what with the priority now on Katrina recovery efforts -- both actual and political. . . .

"The question the last time the rumor bounced around was who would replace Card, with the oddsmakers suggesting either Office of Management and Budget chief Josh Bolten or Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove. Problem then was said to be a need to await resolution of the investigation into Rove's role in the Valerie Plame leak to the press."

Plame Watch

Is time almost up for special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald's investigation into the leak of Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA operative? And is jailed New York Times reporter Judith Miller negotiating with her secret source for permission to testify about their conversation?

Adam Entous writes for Reuters that "lawyers close to the investigation say there are signs that the 20-month-long inquiry could be wrapped up within weeks in a final flurry of negotiations and legal maneuvering.

"Asked if talks were under way with special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, a Justice Department prosecutor, to secure Miller's testimony and release, Abrams said: 'If there are any discussions, they would be private.'"

Arianna Huffington writes in her blog: "Miller is looking for an out."

Assassination Indictment

Jerry Markon writes in The Washington Post: "An American student was charged yesterday in an al Qaeda plot to kill President Bush, with prosecutors alleging that Ahmed Omar Abu Ali and his confederates planned to use multiple snipers to shoot Bush or to blow him up in a suicide bombing."

Always Time For 'Bandar Bush'

From a White House statement : "President Bush met today with His Royal Highness Ambassador Bandar bin Sultan bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud to thank him for his 22 years of distinguished service as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's Ambassador to the United States and bid him farewell."

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart, talking to Samantha Bee, on "The Daily Show":

Stewart: "Alright, Sam, one last question: The president has vowed to personally lead the investigation into the government's failed response to Katrina. Isn't that a job someone else should be doing?"

Bee: "Not at all, Jon. To truly find out what went wrong, it's important for an investigator to have a little distance from the situation. And it's hard to get any more distant from it than the president was last week."

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