Mr. Big Government

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, September 16, 2005; 12:24 PM

Will the real George W. Bush please stand up?

Several of the key points in President Bush's nationally televised speech last night are being widely welcomed this morning: his vow to rebuild the Gulf Coast; his increasingly direct acknowledgment that there were serious government lapses after Hurricane Katrina; his admission that Americans can and should expect a more effective response to catastrophes in the post 9/11 era.

But the guts of the speech -- in which Bush unfurled his administration's grand plans for the biggest government-funded reconstruction effort in history -- has led to considerable skepticism, if not outright puzzlement, on both sides of the political divide.

Consider two of the more extreme possibilities:

* Either Bush is being entirely forthright, in which case he's talking about something reminiscent of the biggest liberal government programs of the 20th century. That scares some conservatives, certainly fiscal conservatives, to death.

* Or maybe it's just a plan to transform the Gulf Coast into a big test bed for conservative social policy, where tax breaks flow to big business and tax money flows to Halliburton, churches and private schools. That utterly terrifies liberals.

The argument that the administration will consider conservative ideological gains as a paramount consideration certainly gains credence when you consider, as I wrote in yesterday's column, that the White House's chief political strategist, Karl Rove, has apparently been put in charge of reconstruction plans.

But there is nothing remotely reminiscent of Bush's traditional small-government rhetoric about a plan estimated to cost taxpayers at least $200 billion.

Here is the text of Bush's address, and the video.

Shocking the Base

As I wrote in last Friday's column , there were already signs in recent polls that Bush for the first time might be losing significant support from his base.

This morning, Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times: "The drive to pour billions of federal dollars into rebuilding the Gulf Coast is widening a fissure among Republicans over fiscal policy, with more of them expressing worry about unbridled spending.

"Senator Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, called for restoring 'sanity' to the federal recovery effort. . . .

" 'We know this is a huge bill,' said Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona. 'We don't want to lay it on future generations.' . . .

" 'We are not sure he knows what he is getting into,' said one senior House Republican official who requested anonymity because of the potential consequences of publicly criticizing the administration."

Jackie Calmes writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The open-ended commitment by President Bush and congressional leaders to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is stoking anger among conservatives over the Republican government's record of higher spending and debt. . . .

"[T]he party's conservative wing, led yesterday by Oklahoma's Tom Coburn in the Senate and Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana in the House, is calling for offsetting 'sacrifices' in federal spending. And they're backed by a growing chorus of conservative activists, columnists and bloggers. . . .

"[C]onservatives' rebelliousness threatens a range of Bush initiatives before Congress. Moreover, Republican strategists worry that widespread disenchantment among the party's bedrock conservatives could lead many to stay home in next year's midterm elections."

Michael Tackett writes in the Chicago Tribune about what he calls Bush's "act of political contortion" last night.

"Government was no longer the problem. Government was now the solution. Federal spending was not to be curtailed. Record federal spending would have his full backing. . . .

"Throughout his nationally broadcast address from a shattered New Orleans, it was as though the disaster of Hurricane Katrina had transformed the president from the logical heir to Ronald Reagan to some curious amalgam of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson."

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "The era of big government is back.

"President Bush is presiding over the most expensive government relief and reconstruction operation in U.S. history, casting aside budget discipline.

"Bush and his Republican allies in Congress are deferring -- for now -- vows to finish the Reagan revolution against big government and turning to some of the same kinds of public health, housing and job assistance programs they once criticized as legacies of the Democrats' New Deal and Great Society."

On CNN last night with Larry King, Time magazine's Jay Carney said that it's "going to be very interesting to watch to see whether or not the president loses support from fiscal conservative Republicans who have already felt upset with this president who has overseen, you know, vast expansion in the size of government over the last four or five years which is not what he promised he would do."

Mark Whitaker of Newsweek had this to say: "I think whatever you think of all of this I think we should all step back and appreciate the irony of a president who ran for office originally in 2000 talking about limited government and a humble foreign policy who now sounds like Woodrow Wilson wanting to spread democracy around the world and abroad and now, at least in terms of this crisis, sounds a little bit like FDR or at least Clinton in one of his State of the Union moments. So, you know, there's a lot about the red/blue divide in America but I can tell you that being a conservative doesn't mean anymore what it used to mean."

Over on MSNBC, chatting with Chris Matthews, conservative talk show host Joe Scarborough said: "This was a speech that really could have been delivered by Lyndon Johnson or Franklin Roosevelt. . . . This sounds like the W.P.A. on steroids."

Bold Words on Race

Trying to fight off the impression that his administration doesn't care about African Americans (see Tuesday's column ), Bush spoke dramatically about race:

"Within the Gulf region are some of the most beautiful and historic places in America. As all of us saw on television, there is also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well.

"That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action.

"So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality."

But consider what conservative talk-show host Tucker Carlson told Matthews on MSNBC last night: "The principal that people are poor because they're discriminated against and the federal government can set that right by social spending . . . is a liberal idea. . . . This is what liberals say -- it's not at all what conservatives say -- and the conservatives watching the speech tonight who noticed that line are sitting bolt upright right now and thinking, did I just hear him say that? . . .

"Conservatives don't believe that. And to hear a purportedly conservative president say that is unprecedented. . . . And I think it's going to annoy the hell out of his base."

Meanwhile in Blogland

Mixed views from the right:

Polipundit writes: "I thought the speech was one of Bush's best. I even applaud his choice of clothing. Pitch perfect. I am not completely on board with all the spending or the increased role of the federal government and military in disaster response, but other than that, I loved the speech."

PunditGuy asks: "Who stole my president? . . .

"Presidents who give away other people's money have always given me a bad taste in my mouth. And tonight, while watching George W. Bush, that taste showed up."

About That Backdrop

From Bush's lonely walk to the podium, to the cathedral over his shoulder lit up like Disneyland, to his wooden delivery before an audience of none, there was something particularly off key about all the White House stagecraft imported into the ghostly center of a still half-drowned town.

And it was, indeed, literally imported. The New York Times's Elisabeth Bumiller, acting as pool reporter, informed colleagues yesterday that all the lights and generators needed to create the desired effect were flown in by the White House.

Reporters were not allowed out of their vans while the president spoke, but they demanded a quick tour of the area beforehand.

"Bobby DeServi and Scott Sforza were on hand as we drove up about 8 p.m. or so EDT handling last-minute details of the stagecraft," Bumiller wrote. DeServi is the White House's chief lighting designer; Sforza is in charge of visuals.

"Bush will be lit with warm tungsten lighting, but the statue [of Andrew Jackson] and cathedral will be illuminated with much brighter, brighter lights . . . like the candlepower that DeServi and Sforza used on Sept. 11, 2002, to light up the Statue of Liberty for Bush's speech in New York Harbor," she wrote.

"Here's a quote from DeServi on the lit-up cathedral: 'Oh, it's heated up. It's going to print loud.' "

TV critic Joanna Weiss writes in the Boston Globe: "Last night, he stood in New Orleans's Jackson Square, wearing blue shirtsleeves that blended almost perfectly into the blue-lit statue and cathedral behind him. His head looked disembodied. His mouth struggled to maintain a frown.

"The White House is scrambling, and the images prove it. . . .

"Appearing in New Orleans was surely meant as a gesture of confidence -- especially since Bush spoke from the relatively unscathed heart of the French Quarter, as opposed to one of the storm-ravaged neighborhoods we've seen so much. But the eerie stillness around him spoke volumes."

TV critic Paul Brownfield writes for the Los Angeles Times: "The set piece was in sharp contrast to the backdrop that TV reporters and anchors have been using in the last few weeks, their dispatches filed from the edge of floodwaters and ruined homes, from shelters where lives had been turned upside down. . . .

"So the spooky placidity of Jackson Square, on what conveyed an otherwise peaceful evening in New Orleans, seemed an oddly appropriate choice for a president who throughout this crisis has been unable to halt the image of a leader who has been neither here nor there. . . .

"Bush, you thought, could have given this speech from the Oval Office, but he came to stake his own version of being there. And he chose the only kind of postcard left on the racks -- the impossibly serene one."

Here's the one unscripted image of the night: a Reuters photo showing a clearly exhausted, sweat-soaked Bush returning to Air Force One after his speech last night.

The Coverage

Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker write in The Washington Post: "President Bush, summoning the American spirit and 'a faith in God no storm can take away,' vowed from the heart of the Hurricane Katrina disaster zone Thursday night to rebuild this devastated city and the rest of the Gulf Coast with 'one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen.' . . .

"The language reflected not only Bush's own faith but also his decision to bring back Michael J. Gerson, his first-term speechwriter and now a policy adviser, to help draft perhaps his most important address since launching the Iraq war in 2003."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "White House officials viewed the speech as the culmination of a pivotal week in which Mr. Bush tried to turn around his image as a chief executive slow to respond to the greatest natural disaster in American history. The speech was meant to portray Mr. Bush as a forceful leader in control of the crisis and sympathetic to the people in the region."

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "Hurricane Katrina struck at the core of Bush's presidency by undermining the central assertion of his reelection campaign, that he was a strong and decisive leader who could keep the country safe in a crisis. Never again will the White House be able to point to his often-praised performance after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, without skeptics recalling the fumbling and slow-off-the-mark response of his administration after the hurricane and the flooding in New Orleans. . . .

"[A]s if recognizing that his own road back will be one marked by steady but small steps, he spoke with workmanlike focus, spelling out the details of what has been done and will be done to help those displaced by the storm. . . .

"In again taking responsibility for the federal government's failures, Bush signaled last night that the White House has decided not to contest the widespread perceptions that his administration failed in the early days of the crisis. By embracing those criticisms, they hope to make the issue a sideshow that will play out sometime in the future. Instead, after a halting start, the White House appears intently focused on demonstrating the president's capacity to manage the huge rebuilding effort ahead."

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "The violence of Hurricane Katrina and his faltering response to it have left to Mr. Bush the task not just of physically rebuilding a swath of the United States, but also of addressing issues like poverty and racial inequality that were exposed in such raw form by the storm.

"The challenge would be immense for any president, but is especially so for Mr. Bush. He is scrambling to assure a shaken, angry nation not only that is he up to the task but also that he understands how much it disturbed Americans to see their fellow citizens suffering and their government responding so ineffectually. . . .

"Mr. Bush called for unity in tackling the problems. But with only a camera before him, and New Orleans silent around him, he could draw no strength or self-assurance from the cheers of a united nation, as he did when he addressed a joint session of Congress nine days after the Sept. 11 attacks. Not only did his own stagecraft leave him alone in the spotlight, but whatever good will flowed to him across the aisle in those moments after the terrorist attacks is long gone, a victim of a polarized political culture that he did not create but to which he has often contributed."

Edwin Chen and Mary Curtius write in the Los Angeles Times: "Bush did not estimate a cost for reconstruction, but budget analysts predicted it would reach $200 billion -- roughly the same amount spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined, and about double the inflation-adjusted cost of the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Europe after World War II."

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "Bush made no mention of the fiscal challenge or of spending cuts or tax increases to help pay for his proposals."

Bathroom Watch

The blogosphere is still entranced with the Reuters photo I wrote about yesterday showing Bush scribbling a note to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during a session at the United Nations, asking if he could go to the bathroom.

Daryl Lang writes in Photo District News that it was a Reuters picture editor, not the photographer, who zoomed in on the note.

Day of Prayer

Bush is speaking today at an invitation-only service at the National Cathedral, where the program has been carefully constructed by the White House.

Rachel Zoll writes for the Associated Press: "Nearly three weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, President Bush has asked religious leaders around the country to join him in a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance on Friday for the storm's victims.

"But once again, several pastors said, the government was a step behind.

"While many houses of worship planned to participate, several others around the country said they had already held such services and would not join the president. Some said they were so angry over the government's sluggish response to blacks and poor people in New Orleans, who waited days for rescue, that they would not heed Bush's request."

Tale of Two Presidents?

As I wrote in Monday's column: "Amid a slew of stories this weekend about the embattled presidency and the blundering government response to the drowning of New Orleans, some journalists who are longtime observers of the White House are suddenly sharing scathing observations about President Bush that may be new to many of their readers."

Among them was Newsweek's Evan Thomas .

Now Aaron Kinney writes in Salon, comparing Thomas's piece with some of Newsweek's earlier coverage.

"Witness its cover story by Richard Wolffe from Jan. 24, 2005 . . . the subhead of which read: 'He's hands-on, detail-oriented and hates 'yes' men. The George Bush you don't know has big dreams -- and is racing the clock to realize them.'

"Wolffe described the president as a man whose 'leadership style belies his caricature as a disengaged president who is blindly loyal, dislikes dissent and covets his own downtime' -- a caricature that looks like a dead ringer after the vacationing president's reaction to Katrina."

Kinney offers a few examples of the contradictions.

"Wolffe: 'To hear his friends tell it, Bush hates toadies.'

"Thomas: 'Bush can be petulant about dissent; he equates disagreement with disloyalty' and 'aides sometimes cringe before [his] displeasure.'

"Wolffe: Bush's 'style in policy briefings is to narrow the debate with a series of questions, crystallizing the competing opinions and exploring the disagreements between his staff.'

"Thomas: 'After five years in office, [Bush] is surrounded largely by people who agree with him.' "

Valerie Plame Watch

Reuters reports: "The Justice Department and the special counsel investigating the leak of a CIA operative's identity pressed Congress to block legislation that would compel the administration to turn over documents related to the case, the department said in a letter released on Thursday.

"The Justice Department, in a letter dated September 14, said special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald had advised that producing documents and holding hearings would interfere with his investigation. The letter was sent to the House Intelligence Committee's Republican chairman, Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan."

Karl Rove Watch

Karl Rove managed to tear himself away from his reconstruction duties yesterday for a fundraising visit to Greensboro, N.C.

The Greensboro News and Record reports that he attended a Republican National Committee fundraiser at a private home.

"Guilford County Republican Party Chairman Marcus Kindley said Rove answered questions from guests around the state.

"The Bush administration has been criticized for being slow to respond to the damage spawned by Hurricane Katrina.

"Kindley said Rove reassured the crowd that the full story of the disaster would be told.

" 'He told us to hang in there,' Kindley said."

Meanwhile, Lloyd Grove writes in his New York Daily News gossip column with more on Rove's kidney stones.

"Washington insiders have been buzzing that President Bush's guru-in-chief -- often called 'Bush's Brain' -- has been suffering from the painful urinary-tract malady for the past couple of weeks, causing him to miss some key Katrina strategy sessions.

"I'm told that the 54-year-old deputy White House chief of staff -- who apparently was feeling well enough yesterday to travel outside the nation's capital -- visited the hospital, possibly twice, to relieve his agony since Labor Day.

"White House officials declined to speak on the record about Rove's kidney stones, due to the extreme delicacy of discussions about internal organs of top presidential advisers."

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