Who's in Charge? Karl Rove!

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, September 15, 2005; 12:00 PM

All you really need to know about the White House's post-Katrina strategy -- and Bush's carefully choreographed address on national television tonight -- is this little tidbit from the ninth paragraph of Elisabeth Bumiller and Richard W. Stevenson's story in the New York Times this morning:

"Republicans said Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff and Mr. Bush's chief political adviser, was in charge of the reconstruction effort."

Rove's leadership role suggests quite strikingly that any and all White House decisions and pronouncements regarding the recovery from the storm are being made with their political consequences as the primary consideration. More specifically: With an eye toward increasing the likelihood of Republican political victories in the future, pursuing long-cherished conservative goals, and bolstering Bush's image.

That is Rove's hallmark.

Rove, Bush's long-time political adviser and the "architect" of Bush's ascendancy, was rewarded after the 2004 election with a position at the White House with overt policy responsibilities. But whereas in some previous White Houses, governance took precedence over campaigning once the election was safely over, Rove has shown no sign of ever putting policy goals above political ones. (See my Rove profile.)

Tonight's speech promises two classic features of the Rove approach.

Bush will take advantage of powerful imagery -- the Associated Press reports the speech will be held in historic Jackson Square, with the famous St. Louis Cathedral as a backdrop -- and he won't risk having anyone around who might disagree with him or ask an impertinent question. In fact, the AP says, there won't be a live audience at all. (And even the journalists covering the event are being told they won't be allowed to stray from their press vans.)

As for the speech itself, it will inevitably seek to answer any naysaying about Bush by recasting him in the heroic, leadership role he played after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- while advocating a range of measures that are dear to the conservative political agenda.

It will, on the other hand, feature one very unRovian tactic. Typically, it is the Democrats who are blamed for wanting to solve problems by throwing money at them. But tonight, Bush will be the one throwing the money around.

Will it work? Rove has an astonishing track record of success. But at the same time, Bush finds himself today a deeply unpopular president according to the opinion polls, particularly damaged by his lackluster response to the protracted, televised suffering in New Orleans.

And Rove himself has not been at his best of late. Unlike many of Bush's advisers, who have plausible deniability for his initial under-reaction because they weren't with him on vacation, Rove was tagging along with the president, blithely touring the West Coast even as the Gulf Coast drowned. Rove is haunted by the possibility of indictment by a federal grand jury investigating the leak of a CIA agent. And according to Time magazine, he was briefly hospitalized last week with painful kidney stones.

Even many of the president's traditional allies say Bush -- and by extension, Rove -- have been off their political game. We'll know better by tomorrow morning whether that continues to be the case.

The Speech

Bush's speech is being carried on all the major networks tonight at 9 ET.

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "It is Bush's first formal prime-time speech during more than two weeks of suffering along the Gulf, with most of the victims chased out by floodwaters in New Orleans. Bush planned to speak from the heart of the French Quarter, while across the city officials were still working to pump out waters and collect bodies left behind.

"Bush planned to show sympathy for the misery brought on by the killer storm while charting a hopeful vision for the future. Many people, including members of the president's party, have said he should have given that kind of speech soon after the hurricane made landfall along the coast on Aug. 29. . . .

"Rather than speak before a live audience, Bush planned to stand alone and broadcast his message directly into the camera from the evacuated city's historic Jackson Square, according to a White House official speaking on condition of anonymity since the site had not been announced.

"The square and its most famed landmark, the St. Louis Cathedral, were on high enough ground to avoid flooding but did not escape damage from Katrina's 145-mph winds. Two massive oak trees outside the 278-year-old cathedral came out by the roots, ripping out a 30-foot section of ornamental iron fence and snapping off the thumb and forefinger of the outstretched hand on a marble statue of Jesus."

Jonathan Weisman and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "President Bush will call tonight for an unprecedented federal commitment to rebuild New Orleans and other areas obliterated by Hurricane Katrina, putting the United States on pace to spend more in the next year on the storm's aftermath than it has over three years on the Iraq war, according to White House and congressional officials.

"With the federal tab for Katrina already nearly quadruple the cost of the country's previous most expensive natural disaster cleanup, Bush plans to offer federal assistance to help flood victims find jobs, get housing and health care, and attend school, according to White House aides. . . .

"Bush and Republican congressional leaders . . . are calculating that the U.S. economy can safely absorb a sharp spike in spending and budget deficits, and that the only way to regain public confidence after the stumbling early response to the disaster is to spend whatever it takes to rebuild the region and help Katrina's victims get back on their feet."

Judy Keen writes in USA Today: "Dan Bartlett, Bush's counselor, said the president will reflect on 'the horrific suffering' in the region and 'outline the beginnings of a vision of the future.' . . .

"Two Bush advisers with direct knowledge of the speech said the president is considering the appointment of a high-profile 'czar' to oversee recovery efforts. But one said the White House is checking whether that would be allowed under federal law."

Kirsten Scharnberg and Jeff Zeleny write in the Chicago Tribune: "The White House is hopeful the address will stem the criticism of the administration's response to the relief effort. A senior administration official said Bush's approval rating, which is hovering at the lowest point of his presidency, also is tied to questions about the war in Iraq. A draft of the speech Wednesday had the president repeating his claim of full responsibility for the government's response, a point of contrition that advisers hope turns the tide of ill will against Bush."

The Not-So-Hidden Agenda

John R. Wilkie and Brody Mullins write in the Wall Street Journal: "Congressional Republicans, backed by the White House, say they are using relief measures for the hurricane-ravaged Gulf coast to achieve a broad range of conservative economic and social policies, both in the storm zone and beyond.

"Some new measures are already taking shape. In the past week, the Bush administration has suspended some union-friendly rules that require federal contractors pay prevailing wages, moved to ease tariffs on Canadian lumber, and allowed more foreign sugar imports to calm rising sugar prices. Just yesterday, it waived some affirmative-action rules for employers with federal contracts in the Gulf region.

"Now, Republicans are working on legislation that would limit victims' right to sue, offer vouchers for displaced school children, lift some environment restrictions on new refineries and create tax-advantaged enterprise zones to maximize private-sector participation in recovery and reconstruction."

Lianne Hart and Janet Hook write in the Los Angeles Times: "White House aides said President Bush's address to the nation tonight would call for reconstructing the Gulf Coast using conservative blueprints and private-sector initiatives. . . .

" 'Bush has a very well defined vision of what government should do and how it should do it,' said Michael Franc, a vice president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research organization consulted by the White House. 'This is a moment to teach or explain to the American people how his values apply to this catastrophic situation.' "

Too Little, Too Late?

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service that "some political communications experts say the speech is overdue for a president who now has to talk his way through a major crisis that could define his legacy."

Chris Matthews discussed the upcoming speech on MSNBC last night with Newwseek's Howard Fineman and NBC's David Gregory.

"He has to show that he is the captain of this ship," Fineman said.

Gregory drew a sharp contrast with Bush's bullhorn speech after 9/11. Back then, "he was part of how we all felt victimized. I think, in this case, he has been detached from the compassion. . . . There really is such difficulty in recovering from that. "

A Winner

John Dickerson yesterday published responses to a Slate contest from the previous day, that asked readers to say where Bush should hold his speech and why.

Long before the actual location leaked, Dickerson had picked the winner: former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers. She wrote: "He should speak from Jackson Square, with the St. Louis Cathedral in the background. It's one of the oldest sites in the city, the cathedral has been destroyed by fire and rebuilt twice, it's in the historic French Quarter, it's the spiritual and cultural center of the city. It's also on relatively high ground these days."


Brownie Speaks

David D. Kirkpatrick and Scott Shane write in the New York Times: "Hours after Hurricane Katrina passed New Orleans on Aug. 29, as the scale of the catastrophe became clear, Michael D. Brown recalls, he placed frantic calls to his boss, Michael Chertoff, the secretary of homeland security, and to the office of the White House chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr.

"Mr. Brown, then director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said he told the officials in Washington that the Louisiana governor, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, and her staff were proving incapable of organizing a coherent state effort and that his field officers in the city were reporting an 'out of control' situation. . . .

"Mr. Brown's account, in which he described making 'a blur of calls' all week to Mr. Chertoff, Mr. Card and Mr. Hagin, suggested that Mr. Bush, or at least his top aides, were informed early and repeatedly by the top federal official at the scene that state and local authorities were overwhelmed and that the overall response was going badly.

"A senior administration official said Wednesday night that White House officials recalled the conversations with Mr. Brown but did not believe they had the urgency or desperation he described in the interview."

At the UN

Peter Baker and Colum Lynch write in The Washington Post: "President Bush, reaching out to an audience he has antagonized in the past, told the assembled leaders of the world Wednesday that the United States shared 'a moral duty' to combat not only terrorism but also the poverty, oppression and hopelessness that give rise to it."

Baker and Lynch also note: "When Bush was greeted by Secretary General Kofi Annan on Tuesday, U.N. closed-circuit television showed the president joking about the tension over [U.S. Ambassador John R.] Bolton, who once suggested it would make no difference if 10 floors of the U.N. building disappeared. 'How is he behaving?' Bush asked. 'Has the place blown up?' "

David E. Sanger and Warren Hoge write in the New York Times: "Rather than declare, as he had in the past, that countries had to choose to be 'with us or against us' in battling terrorists, Mr. Bush cast himself as the leader of one of many nations fighting the same plague."

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "In effect, Bush used the speech to marry the United Nations' goals of defeating poverty and disease with his vision of fighting terrorism by promoting democracy. . . .

"Bush used his speech to explain why, in his view, democracy thwarts the growth of terrorism. 'Democratic nations uphold the rule of law, impose limits on the power of the state, treat women and minorities as full citizens,' he said. 'Democratic nations protect private property, free speech and religious expression.' "

But there may be a problem with that theory, Kessler notes.

"Writing in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, F. Gregory Gause III said that a review of academic literature and statistics finds little evidence that democracy stops terrorism."

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write about Bush's visit to the UN for Newsweek.com: "Bush dislikes the place so much he often tells reporters how he'd love to reach into the normally silent rows of world leaders and shake them up with his bare hands."

Here is the text of Bush's address to the UN.

Poll Watch

Three new polls out today.

Todd S. Purdum writes in the New York Times about the latest New York Times/CBS News poll which shows Bush with "overall approval ratings for his job performance and handling of Iraq, foreign policy and the economy at or near the lowest levels of his presidency. . . .

"Taken together, the numbers suggest that a public that has long seen Mr. Bush as a determined leader, whether it agreed with him or not, has growing doubts about his capacity to deal with pressing problems. More than 6 in 10 said they were uneasy about his ability to make the right decisions about the war in Iraq, and half expressed similar unease about his ability to deal with the problems of the storm's victims."

Purdum quotes Bush counselor Dan Bartlett saying: "Obviously, as we have said, with a sharp increase in the cost of gasoline and anxiety about the war, that is obviously reflected in the polls, and then we have a sustained amount of heavy coverage of what has been described as a major failure of government at all levels, it shouldn't surprise people that that would be reflected in the poll numbers on the president, and particularly on terrorism."

Here are the results of that poll.

Mark Murray writes for NBC News: "Rocked by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, record-high gas prices, and the continued debate over Iraq, President George W. Bush's public standing has sunk to new lows, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds. . . .

"Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted the survey with [Democratic pollster Peter D.] Hart, adds that he has disliked stories portraying Sept. 11 and Katrina as bookends for Bush -- that the first event boosted his presidency, while the second has done the opposite. But he says these poll numbers suggest that is indeed what's happening. 'It's hard to avoid that bookend story.' . . .

"According to the poll, Bush's job approval has plummeted to 40 percent, an all-time low for the president. That's a drop of 6 points from the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken in July, and it's consistent with results from other recent national surveys."

John Harwood writes in the Wall Street Journal: "Hurricane Katrina has accelerated the erosion in public support for the Iraq war as President Bush's core of supporters dwindles and economic pessimism turns Americans' attention inward.

"A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll shows that cutting spending on Iraq is Americans' top choice for financing the recovery from Katrina. "

Here are those results.

And the Wall Street Journal Online reports on a new Harris Poll: "Nearly half of U.S. adults say President Bush has done a poor job in handling the Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, according to a recent Harris Interactive poll. . . .

"Americans are very much split along party lines on how Mr. Bush has handled the disaster. Nearly two-thirds, or 64%, of Republicans have a positive image of his response, compared with 94% of Democrats who feel his response has been fair or poor."

Here are those results.

No More Sheehans

The Associated Press reports: "Two weeks after Cindy Sheehan left her anti-war campsite by the road leading to President Bush's ranch, county commissioners have banned parking along 23 miles of roads in the area."

Valerie Plame Watch

Reuters reports: "Two U.S. congressional committees on Wednesday rejected Democrat-backed resolutions that would have compelled the Bush administration to turn over records relating to the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

"Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee and International Relations Committee, who opposed the resolution, said Congress should await the outcome of a federal investigation by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald.

"Democrats countered that Republicans were trying to protect President George W. Bush and his top political adviser, Karl Rove."

Bathroom Break

Editor and Publisher calls it "destined to become one of the most yakked about photos of the month, if not year."

It's a keeper, alright. The only question is whether it will become iconic.

This Reuters photo by Rick Wilking captures Bush scribbling a note to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during a session at the United Nations.

The message: "I think I may need a bathroom break? Is that possible?"

My question: Is it really possible that there are already more than 10,000 blog posts about this picture?

Alan Roden writes on Scotsman.com: "Tensions were running high as the world's most powerful men and women discussed international security and the future of the United Nations.

"At the high-pressure meeting, President George W Bush sat stern faced, surrounded by top diplomats and the largest gathering of world leaders in history.

"The US President, an outspoken critic of the UN in recent years, picked up his pencil and wrote a short note to his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Around him, the UN delegation wondered what secrets he was passing to his most trusted advisor.

"But the most pressing matter on the President's mind was nothing to do with international security - he was desperate for the toilet.

" 'I think I may need a bathroom break. Is this possible?' he wrote. A photographer with a high-powered zoom managed to capture the moment during yesterday's UN Security Council meeting, which was held to discuss threats to international peace and security. . . .

"Politicians in Scotland today sympathised with the President's predicament, and said they too had been left short during lengthy - and often boring - meetings.

"Tory MSP Brian Monteith said: 'I've been telling people for years that George Bush is human and not some alien or automaton, but no-one would listen. I know how he feels, there are times in these big meetings when all eyes are on you and yet below your cheery smile you are bursting.'"

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