Desperately Seeking Swagger

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, September 26, 2005; 5:41 PM

Two major stories over the weekend suggest that a series of false steps, followed by accusations of incompetence and growing public disapproval, have left President Bush and his aides with their confidence badly shaken.

And in a big change as far as the press coverage of the president is concerned, aides and allies whose loyalty to Bush once precluded even the slightest public acknowledgement of any weakness anywhere in his White House appear to have lost some of their inhibitions -- at least on background.

Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker write in Saturday's Washington Post: "A president who roamed across the national and world stages with an unshakable self-assurance that comforted Republicans and confounded critics since 2001 suddenly finds himself struggling to reclaim his swagger. Bush's standing with the public -- and within the Republican Party -- has been battered by a failed Social Security campaign, violence in Iraq, and most recently Hurricane Katrina. His approval ratings, 42 percent in the most recent Washington Post-ABC poll, have never been lower.

"A president who normally thrives on tough talk and self-assurance finds himself at what aides privately describe as a low point in office, one that is changing the psychic and political aura of the White House, as well as its distinctive political approach. . . .

"Aides who never betrayed self-doubt now talk in private of failures selling the American people on the Iraq war, the president's Social Security plan and his response to Hurricane Katrina. . . .

"Most of all, White House aides want to reestablish Bush's swagger -- the projection of competence and confidence in the White House that has carried the administration through tough times since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. . . .

"In a series of private conversations over the past few months, aides began second-guessing how they handled the Social Security debate, managed the public perception of the Iraq war and, most recently, the response to Katrina."

And it turns out that the Valerie Plame case is indeed hanging over the White House like a pall.

VandeHei and Baker write: "The federal CIA leak investigation, which has forced Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove and others to testify before a grand jury, seemed to distract officials and left a general feeling of unease, two aides said. Aides were calling reporters to find out what was happening with Rove and the investigation. 'Nobody knows what's going to happen with the probe,' one senior aide said."

Evan Thomas starts his piece in Newsweek with Bush sitting in the Colorado headquarters of Northern Command on Saturday.

"The president was hearing mostly good news. . . . The president didn't look all that relieved or happy, however. His eyes were puffy from lack of sleep (he had been awakened all through the night with bulletins), and he seemed cranky and fidgety. A group of reporters and photographers had been summoned by White House handlers to capture a photo op of the commander in chief at his post. Bush stared at them balefully. He rocked back and forth in his chair, furiously at times, asked no questions and took no notes."

(Here's an AFP photo.)

Thomas writes: "And so what can Americans learn from this month of destruction and near destruction, of Category 3s and Category 4s, of slow presidential reflexes and presidential hyperactivity? . . . In an age in which terrorists have successfully struck the American homeland and hope to do so again, the 2005 hurricane season has made a seemingly boring quality of leadership sexy again: competence. . . .

"Bush's presidency post 9/11 and his re-election were based on the hope and expectation of his ability to lead in crisis. There was nothing subtle or in any way ambivalent about the way Bush presented himself as the Man in Charge. Criticized (by pundits, by Europeans, even by his wife) for swaggering, Bush continued to play the cowboy and look as though he was enjoying it. . . .

"Especially during the run-up to the Iraq war and the 2004 campaign, Bush was not above stirring up a little fear. Now he is trying, a little too hard, perhaps, to reassure the public that his government really is able to cope with chaos."

Matthew Cooper writes on Time.com: "George Bush has become a hurricane hunter. Like those pilots who fly into the storm, Bush has been criss-crossing the country looking for the best ways to show that he's offering a competent and compassionate response to Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. . . .

"Now the president is doing everything he can to show he's on top of the situation. But it may be the case that his actions have an undesired effect -- making him look too cloying and calculating. And, of course, the angry response to Katrina wasn't just about Bush's seeming indifference -- although that played a part in it. Most of it was surely about the poor response of, as White House officials like to say in a dig at state and local officials, 'all levels of government.' "

Here's NBC's David Gregory writing in an NBC blog Friday evening: "During his visit to FEMA emergency operations center here in Washington today, I asked the President what good he thinks he could do traveling to the hurricane zone later today in anticipation of Rita. He initially brushed off questions, but then spun around to say, 'We will make sure that my entourage does not get in the way of people doing their job.' . . .

"The same President who appeared just a tad aloof taking in Katrina's wrath from Air Force One, or strumming a guitar after a speech as Katrina was striking, is now desperately seeking a new photo opportunity to symbolize his stewardship in response to Rita."

Gregory concludes: "Bottom line is, these are photo ops. White House aides admit they want Mr. Bush to be seen in briefings and personally tending to the government's response. Mr. Bush has no choice but to be in the middle of the action. Disaster relief and rebuilding are now the canvas of his second term. Between storms and war, the President's vision may face less scrutiny than his administration's basic competence."

Here's the transcript from Bush's visit to FEMA on Friday.

Gregory was asking specifically about Bush's planned stop in San Antonio Friday afternoon -- which for one reason or another never happened.

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times from San Antonio, where many members of the press corps ended up anyway: "President Bush was supposed to land here on Friday afternoon on the first stop of a tour intended to make clear that he was personally overseeing the federal government's preparations for Hurricane Rita's landfall. But the weather did not cooperate.

"It was too sunny.

"Just minutes before Mr. Bush was scheduled to leave the White House, his aides in Washington scrubbed the stop in San Antonio. Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, explained that the search-and-rescue team that Mr. Bush had planned to meet and thank here in San Antonio was actually packing up to move closer to where the hurricane would strike. . . .

"Another White House official involved in preparing Mr. Bush's way noted that with the sun shining so brightly in San Antonio, the images of Mr. Bush from here might not have made it clear to viewers that he was dealing with an approaching storm."

And as for getting in the way, Thomas's piece in Newsweek adds this detail: "On Saturday afternoon, as reporters and advance men in Bush's entourage squeezed into the Texas emergency-ops center, a worker handling requests for generators cried out, 'Whose idea was this? I can't do my work! I am about to really lose it!' "

Bush generally takes advantage of every chance -- and then some -- to spend the night at his beloved Crawford ranch.

But David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times that, "however tantalizingly close, the ranch was clearly off-limits on this trip. The last night Mr. Bush spent there was just after the levees broke in New Orleans. While he returned to Washington the next day, flying over the flooded city on the way, his initial presence at the ranch and images of him viewing the disaster from the climate-controlled comfort of Air Force One reinforced the image of a leader detached. No one could afford that on Saturday."

U.S. News reports: "Conservatives chafing at President Bush's Hurricane Katrina spending plan and depressed with his low poll numbers are beginning to blame his top staff for moving too slowly to reverse the slide. Indeed, some suggest that the president needs to bring in new top staff to invigorate his administration. 'He needs a new group of people with energy and ideas around him,' says a GOP strategist with ties to the White House. 'They're like a dying cellphone battery.' Ever since the re-election campaign ended, the president's supporters have worried that his top staff was worn out. It's a feeling administration staffers have often concurred with. But White House insiders balk at calls for changes, claiming that the president knows exactly what his political situation is and has a long-term plan built on new initiatives that will drown out the critics next spring."

Mark Thompson, Karen Tumulty and Mike Allen write in Time: "When President Bush's former point man on disasters was discovered to have more expertise about the rules of Arabian horse competition than about the management of a catastrophe, it was a reminder that the competence of government officials who are not household names can have a life or death impact. The Brown debacle has raised pointed questions about whether political connections, not qualifications, have helped an unusually high number of Bush appointees land vitally important jobs in the Federal Government."

They note that "this Bush Administration had a plan from day one for remaking the bureaucracy, and has done so with greater success.

"As far back as the Florida recount, soon-to-be Vice President Dick Cheney was poring over organizational charts of the government with an eye toward stocking it with people sympathetic to the incoming Administration. . . .

"And Bush has gone further than most Presidents to put political stalwarts in some of the most important government jobs you've never heard of, and to give them genuine power over the bureaucracy."

White House aides claim that Bush often presides over spirited policy debates and encourages people to disagree with him. This may or may not be true.

But it sure doesn't happen in public. With the notable exception of the presidential debates, I don't think I've ever seen someone say something in front of Bush that he didn't want to hear.

So it's somewhat notable that Maj. Gen. John White of the Army, at yesterday's briefing in San Antonio, actually called what happened in New Orleans "a train wreck."

What White and other generals were there for was not to mess up Bush's narrative -- the president spoke glowingly of "some amazingly heroic efforts in pulling people off roofs" -- but to publicly call for a national plan to address the military's role in search and rescue operations.

And indeed, Bush garnered headlines across the country today for his suggestion that Congress consider a larger role for the armed forces in responding to disasters.

Jim VandeHei and Josh White write in the Washington Post: "Bush has told aides that one of the major breakdowns in the Hurricane Katrina response was the federal government's inability to seize control of rescue and relief efforts. Under existing law and procedure, a state governor is in charge when natural disasters strike and is responsible for deploying the National Guard, though in certain cases, the president can order troops to support local law enforcement."

But consider this: "Federal law, response plans and congressional studies -- plus what happened this past week for Hurricane Rita -- make it plain that there is already abundant authority to request the military. . . .

"Under the new National Response Plan unveiled last winter, local military commanders are authorized and pre-approved 'to respond to requests of civil authorities' for 'immediate response' needs, including rescue, evacuation, medical treatment, restoration of vital services and safeguarding and distribution of food and supplies, said Michael Greenberger, director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland School of Law.

"The military is also allowed to provide whatever other disaster support is necessary."

And Hurricane Rita, apparently, was a case in point.

Jonathan S. Landay, Seth Borenstein and Alison Young write for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "The Bush administration says it's researching whether the federal government needs to have greater authority to respond to disasters -- and whether the military should be in charge.

"The response to Rita, however, suggests that the government had plenty of authority to respond to Katrina and that what was lacking during Katrina was an understanding of when to use that authority."

David Wessel writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "In view of the growing costs of Gulf Coast hurricanes, White House Budget Director Joshua Bolten said the president has asked him 'to examine the rest of the budget . . . to see where we can tighten our belt,' a quest that may lead to cuts in federal benefit programs.

"Those expenditures, which budget experts call 'mandatory spending,' include benefits such as farm subsidies and the Medicaid and Medicare health programs that are paid to eligible Americans without annual congressional appropriations. 'Other mandatory spending has to be on the table beyond what was in the budget resolution' Congress passed this year, Mr. Bolten said in an interview. He called such programs 'fruitful places to look,' though he didn't single out any."

Bolten "would be specific only in fencing off some targets for belt-tightening."

Petula Dvorak writes in The Washington Post: "Tens of thousands of people packed downtown Washington yesterday and marched past the White House in the largest show of antiwar sentiment in the nation's capital since the conflict in Iraq began.

"The demonstration drew grandmothers in wheelchairs and babies in strollers, military veterans in fatigues and protest veterans in tie-dye. It was the first time in a decade that protest groups had a permit to march in front of the executive mansion, and, even though President Bush was not there, the setting seemed to electrify the crowd."

Michael Janofsky writes in the New York Times: "Vast numbers of protesters from around the country poured onto the lawns behind the White House on Saturday to demonstrate their opposition to the war in Iraq, pointedly directing their anger at President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

"A sea of anti-administration signs and banners flashed back at a long succession of speakers, who sharply rebuked the administration for continuing a war that has cost the lives of nearly 2,000 Americans and many more Iraqis. Many of the speakers also charged Mr. Bush with squandering resources that could have been used to aid people affected by the two hurricanes that slammed into the Gulf Coast."

Mark Memmott writes in USA Today: "Three days of anti-war activities, including the largest such protest here since the war in Iraq began in March 2003, are scheduled to end today with what organizers hope will be peaceful arrests at the White House gates."

Lawrence K. Altman writes in the New York Times: "Vice President Dick Cheney went home from a hospital here on Sunday morning, a day after doctors performed procedures to repair aneurysms in arteries behind both his knees.

"Mr. Cheney, 64, walked slowly out of George Washington University Hospital with his wife, Lynne, at his side. He planned to rest on Sunday and work from home on Monday, his chief spokesman, Stephen E. Schmidt, said. . . .

"Mr. Schmidt said that, before they started, the vice president's doctors had expected to perform the procedure only on the artery in Mr. Cheney's right knee. But during the procedure, he said, the doctors decided to repair both knees."

In Sunday's Times, Altman wrote that some vascular surgeons raised questions about the vice president's surgery.

One of them, Dr. Thomas R. Bernik, chief of endovascular surgery at St. Vincent's Manhattan Hospital, "said the decision to do both repairs on the same day was 'surprising and a little bit irresponsible, I must say.' That is partly because the extra procedure could increase the risk of complications now or in the future, he said. . . .

"Two doctors on Mr. Cheney's medical team said they would be willing to discuss his case with this physician-reporter if given permission to do so. But the White House declined to grant such permission."

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "Karen Hughes, the new public diplomacy czar charged with improving the U.S. image, began her maiden diplomatic voyage Sunday, meeting in picturesque settings with Egyptian students who have benefited from American largess. . . .

"Outside the carefully vetted settings of Hughes's visit, interviews with ordinary Egyptians indicated deep anger at the policies of the Bush administration.

" 'You American people are 100 percent good,' said Farouq Hickel, a bearded minivan driver who was walking past the Bab Zuwayla, a 900-year-old Islamic monument, restored with U.S. funds, that Hughes toured. 'We have no problems with Americans. But look at what Bush is doing -- he is messing up the world.' "

Dave Kolpack writes for the Associated Press from Fargo, N.D., where chief White House political strategist Karl Rove "delivered a low-key speech to about 60 state committee members on Saturday." Rove did not take questions from reporters.

"Party members at Saturday's event said Rove's pep talk contained more substance than hype. . . .

" 'You expect a pit bull wanting to go through a jar of whip cream,' [Rep. Ron Iverson, R-N.D] said. 'And that's not it. To him the results are more important than personality.' . . .

"Rove said he wanted to stay in North Dakota longer, but that he had meetings scheduled on Sunday to discuss the nation's energy situation in the wake of two hurricanes."

On Friday, Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) published a letter asking Bush "why his White House point person for disaster coordination and recovery, Karl Rove, was heading for a political fundraiser in North Dakota on the same day Hurricane Rita is expected to slam into Texas and Louisiana."

Brendan Murray writes for Bloomberg: "President George W. Bush's main proposal for reviving the storm-stricken Gulf Coast has a history of failing to deliver on the promise of prosperity. . . .

"In the two decades since [enterprise zones] have come into widespread use, researchers have found little evidence they work very well. Critics say the main beneficiaries often aren't the people the zones are designed to aid, but businesses that end up with tax incentives for investments they would have made anyway."

John Solomon writes for the Associated Press: "Federal prosecutors are investigating whether a maker of bulletproof vests endangered lives, including President Bush's, by concealing potentially deadly flaws in the body armor sold to the government and police agencies."

This just in from the White House: First lady Laura Bush will be participating in the filming of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" tomorrow morning in Biloxi, Miss.

My main e-mail account, froomkin@washingtonpost.com, was down starting Friday afternoon until this morning around 9:30. If you tried sending me something, it bounced and I didn't get it. Please send it again.

I will be on vacation next week. Some of you get surprisingly angry when I take days off, so this time I'm giving you plenty of advance notice.

Also, before I leave, I plan to put together a list of blogs and other Web sites that die-hard White House watchers could cobble together as a (poor) substitute for White House Briefing. Please e-mail me your suggestions.

John Leland writes in the New York Times about the "tradition of responding culturally to terrible events."

The latest example: "an unlicensed rap song describing the frustration of African-American evacuees has been made available free on the Internet. The song, 'George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People,' by the Houston duo called the Legendary K.O., vividly recounts the plight of those who endured the hurricane, occasionally using crude language in the process. It has already been downloaded by as many as a half-million people. The videos [here and here] have been seen by thousands."

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