White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, September 7, 2005; 1:00 PM


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone, and welcome to another White House Chat. It's interesting times at the White House, that's for sure.

Faced with a full-scale political disaster in the form of a disgraceful government response to Hurricane Katrina, the political operatives are out in full force trying to deflect blame from the president.

They're having success here and there -- but for them, that's way below average. And the stakes are very high.

And then, oh yes, there's that whole Supreme Court thing. And Iraq. Remember Iraq?

My column today is about how the press is demanding answers from President Bush with unprecedented vigor.

"This post-Katrina press awakening," I write, "is not the result of reporters expressing their personal or political opinions so much as it is about their asking tough questions based on what they, and others, have seen with their own eyes."

Apparently there are some production difficulties at the Web site, however. I'll try to let you known when it shows up -- and where. Or check back later.


Shepherdstown, W.Va.: I think it is going to become increasingly clear that Blanco and other state-level authorities did not call for federal assistance early enough, notably on Aug. 27 when President Bush reportedly made contact with her office on the state of the emergency. It seems that Democrats are going to have to do a lot of humble pie eating soon. Net result: public anger at all politicians. Do you read these same trends, and what of this do you think will stick to Bush? Because I call him the new teflon president. Sure his polls are soggy, but given all the things his administration is accused of, he's doing mighty fine.

Dan Froomkin: Politically, as long as Bush's base and the Republican Congress stick with him, he can hang tough. The thing about the Katrina recovery is that, unlike overtly partisan issues, it has some potential to erode that support.

As for blaming the locals, I am quite sure that the local and state governments deserve some of the blame for this catastrophe. Some of the things the White House is saying aren't correct, but some, I'm sure, are.

But Bush's image as America's protector is extremely important to him, and to his base.

Ultimately, I don't see how his saying "I'll protect you -- unless of course your local officials fail you, in which case I'll let you die a horrible death on national TV," is going to make him look good.


Columbia, Md.: How angry and upset do you think members of the media and Democratic Party are at the latest Gallup poll shows only 13% of Americans blame President Bush for the relief efforts in New Orleans? It has to be irritating that, despite the single-minded focus of these Democrats and media to try and blame Bush, only 13% actually do.

Dan Froomkin: Here's the report from the Gallup Organization that you're referring to.

Asked how good a job Bush did responding to hurricane, 10 percent said great; 25 percent said good; 21 percent said neither good nor bad; 18 percent said bad and 24 percent said terrible. That's 35 percent positive; 42 percent negative.

The specific question you mention is this one: "Who do you think is MOST responsible for the problems in New Orleans after the hurricane -- or is no one really to blame?"

The response: Bush, 13 percent; Federal agencies, 18 percent; State/local officials, 25 percent; No one, 38 percent.

You make a good point, though -- judging from the White House coverage, you'd think that first number would be higher. But it may go up, especially as people understand more about the White House's role.


Madison, Wis.: Hello Mr. Froomkin. Thank you for the eminently competent column, it's a rare thing. Many reports in the blogosphere regarding the diversion of potentially life-saving resources for photo opportunities by the President (also, some main-stream media reports: Frustrated: Fire crews to hand out fliers for FEMA ) Is there any reason why the larger outlets have failed to report on these incidents? Is a fear of being labeled partisan at the root of it or are there legitimate reasons being overlooked by an infuriated portion of the public? Insight always appreciated. Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: That was indeed a fascinating story in the Salt Lake Tribune. And what was unusual about it was the anger from the firefighters used as backdrops. To be honest, most of the people the White House hand picks to be backdrops are delighted to do so.

That's another example of how Katrina may be throwing the White House for a loop. The gulf between rhetoric and reality is rarely so overt or visceral as using firefighters who aren't being allowed to save people as props for a photo op.

More generally speaking, there are fundamentally three ways to respond to the White House's meticulously staged photo ops.

1) Lap them up.

2) Ignore them.

3) Expose them for what they are.

Reporters generally do a bit of all three, I'm afraid. I personally encourage -- and highlight -- that third option.


Arlington, Va.: Dan: Dan Balz's article today noted that 74% of Republicans approved of Bush's hurricane performance -for some reason. Since the President likes to play to his base and not worry about Dems who seldom approve anyway, is the political damage the White House will take from this being overestimated? Any idea what his disaster approval from the independent voters is? Thanks for the column/chats.

Dan Froomkin: Good question. The new Gallup poll (see above) has these numbers. Overall, response to Bush's hurricane response was 42 negative, 35 positive, 21 agnostic:

"* By a margin of 69% to 10%, Republicans give Bush a positive rather than negative rating for his response.

"* Democrats give almost a mirror opposite -- 66% negative to 10% positive.

"* Independents side with the Democrats, giving a more modest margin -- 47% negative to 29% positive."


Chicago, Ill.: Is it true that Halliburton has been given the contract to re-build in New Orleans?

Dan Froomkin: Sort of.

Lolita C. Baldor

writes for the Associated Press: "A Halliburton Co. subsidiary that has come under fire for its reconstruction work in Iraq has begun tapping a $500 million Navy contract to do emergency repairs at Gulf Coast naval and Marine facilities that were battered by Hurricane Katrina.

"The subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown & Root Services Inc. of Arlington, Va., was awarded the competitive bid contract last July to provide debris removal and other emergency work associated with natural disasters."

Incidentally, Halliburton


has just shot up in the past week.


Washington Post: Hi Dan, In this age of political rapid response centers, operatives scouring newscasts and the Internet for any sort of spinnable sound byte, etc, about what percentage of the questions that you and people like Kurtz and Terry Neil get do you think are from Dem and Repub foot soldiers?

Dan Froomkin: I'd never really stopped to think about that.

In my mind, a good question is a good question. I don't care who it's coming from.

But I do post comments, too. Hm.

Do you know something I don't?


Arlington, Va.: I think Barbara Bush's "let them eat cake" attitude expressed after meeting with some of the storm survivors in Houston is quite telling and it seems to perfectly sum up what I believe to be the President's problem as well. They have absolutely no experience with poor people and just look down on these folks. I think Bill Clinton who grew up poor could connect with people, but George W. Bush has never wanted for anything in his whole entire life, so he just can't wrap his mind around what those people down there are going through.

Dan Froomkin: I think Barbara Bush has some explaining to do.


New York Times

picks up the story today and reports: "As President Bush battled criticism over the response to Hurricane Katrina, his mother declared it a success for evacuees who 'were underprivileged anyway,' saying on Monday that many of the poor people she had seen while touring a Houston relocation site were faring better than before the storm hit.")

If she somehow misspoke herself, she should explain that.

But if she really feels that these "underprivileged" people are better off living in a shelter than in their homes, after undergoing unfathomable trauma, then she needs to apologize profusely and/or leave the public stage.

And I would like her son to address the matter sometime.

Wouldn't you agree? Wouldn't anyone?


Rockville, Md.: Dear Mr. Froomkin, In the wake of the disaster in New Orleans (the one that came after the hurricane and flood), will FEMA's director be fired? Clearly, he is not experienced in disaster relief and some have paid with their lives and health for the government's/FEMA's failure to manage the post-hurricane/flood situation competently. Is the only criteria for being a Bush appointee loyalty to the President?

Dan Froomkin: If they are otherwise unable to contain this furor, then yes, I suspect Brown will be sacrificed. He is not one of Bush's inner circle of loyalists, after all.

Then again, the focus on Brown may be a blessing for the White House, in that it distracts from other hurricane-related issues.


Goleta, Calif.: Dan,

Thanks so much for these chats. They're always quite informative.

I woke up this morning here in Calif. to read that CNN is reporting that the House of Reps has cancelled its investigation into how the federal government/executive branch failed. They're blaming the local and state officials now.

I was heartened by the press' performance yesterday at the briefing, but I'm wondering if they'll continue to hold the administration's feet to the fire. After all, the executive branch didn't even follow its own emergency plan! What do you think? Will this break down into a "blame the locals while not playing the blame game" sort of craziness? Or will common sense and decency prevail?

Dan Froomkin: Well, I actually found that a fascinating and rare example of the Republican leadership publicly slapping down the Republican rank and file, which may be veering off the White House path.

I think the tough questions will continue, at least for a while.


Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.: I've noticed your columns have become increasingly more sharp in your critique of White House policy. What took you so long?

Dan Froomkin: People tell me that sometimes. I don't feel I'm doing anything very different. The column tends to be a function of what's going on out there.


Kingston, Ontario, Canada: You note that journalists are finally started to ask the Bush administration and the President himself some hard questions. It seems that this is about time as your President seems to have gotten an easy ride from the press throughout his Presidency.

Why such an easy ride and why is the press finally waking up? My guess is that the press has finally seen first hand the consequences of government incompetence. Do you think that an inquiry over what happened in New Orleans will actually result in changes? There were computer simulations and studies that showed that the levies would break under certain conditions and that the Federal government did nothing about it.

Dan Froomkin: Gosh, I sure wish you could read today's column.

But I think the post-Katrina awakening is, just like you said, in part because so many people have been able to see, first-hand, things which don't jibe with what the president is saying. It's a much more visceral experience to watch the horror in New Orleans and hear Bush defend the response than it is, say, to know that he is misrepresenting a fact about Social Security. That's why the continued carnage in Iraq has been emboldening reporters, too.

The other part is that you are hearing (rank and file) Republicans as well as Democrats roundly criticizing the federal response. Reporters are very afraid of sounding "partisan" and in an effort to appear unbiased sometimes bend over backwards to make every White House story sound like one with two sides equally based in reality.


Washington Post: I just happen to know some people from my college days involved in the last and continuing campaigns and such. Both side employ interns and low-level lackeys to submit loaded questions and comments to political chats- sort of rhetorical questions.

As I said, both sides are doing it, but per usual, the Reps had the first well oiled machine and the Dems are playing catch-up

Dan Froomkin: I'll pass that along to the bosses here. It's an interesting concern.

But it may just be an occupational hazard. We certainly don't ever suggest that Live Online participants are representative samples of -- well -- anything.


Washington, D.C.: Ever since I can remember, Rove's attack tactics have been surprisingly similar and predictable. Why haven't the Democrats come up with a better counter strategy? C'mon, I knew Rove would unleash his hounds on Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin, the moment I saw people suffering in the convention center. On the other hand, Both Blanco Nagin now look like fools, first blaming the Feds, then trying to make peace with Bush, and then turning on the Feds again.

Dan Froomkin: It's a very, very, very effective strategy.

And it takes advantage of the fact that Republicans are much better at sticking to their talking points than Democrats, who often can't seem to help taking the bait.

It also take advantage of the power of the presidency. Everything he says is news. And he has enormous power.

Bush sometimes jokes about how people come into the Oval Office intending to give him a piece of their mind, but instead end up telling him how good he's looking. And he's not entirely kidding.

A lot of people I'm sure were looking forward to seeing a big Nagin-Bush conflagration after Nagin's passionate, obscenity-laden speech on the radio the other night.

But when push comes to shove, almost any elected official -- not to mention one in dire need of federal help -- is going to think twice before ticking off the president personally.


washingtonpost.com: Today's column: Demanding Answers


Dan Froomkin: Hooray! my column is on the site!


Seattle, Wash.: The Washington Post is being criticized for not exposing the "senior Bush official" who lied about the La. governor's declaration of a state emergency. Should The Post's correction suffice?

Dan Froomkin: I'm not privy to the inner workings of The Post.

I do think this is an unusual case, in that the biggest mistake appears to have been The Post's -- not the source's. Newspapers should verify verifiable assertions by all sources. And they should not attribute verifiable information to anonymous sources.


Astoria, N.Y.: I kind of resent the comment: "interns and low-level lackeys to submit loaded questions and comments to political chats." I for one, definitely submit loaded and rhetorical questions, but I am not employed or volunteer for anyone, its just the way I feel, and last time I looked, it was okay to state how you feel without having to work for someone. Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: You're very welcome.


Bethesda, Md.: Has President Bush ever fired anyone? Ever? In the private sector or as a government official? Does he now that sometimes as command and chief you must fire people?

Dan Froomkin: Sure. For instance, White House economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey was fired after publicly estimating in 2002 that the effort in Iraq could cost between $100 billion and $200 billion. That struck the White House at the time as an absurd and unhelpful exaggeration.

It is remarkable that Bush hasn't fired more people. Most MBAs I know consider firing a valuable tool.


Columbia, Md.: Hi Dan

Your column yesterday was extremely good, I was looking forward to more today. But it seems every time you do one of these chats you are apologizing for a problem with the Web site getting the column online. Doesn't the Web site crew know we're all out here just on pins and needles waiting for our daily Froomkin fix? It's lunchtime, that means it's Froomkin time, and they are slacking off while the coffee is getting cold!!!!! You'd think FEMA was running the Web site! Anyhow, pass on a message from your readers that we need your column at lunchtime everyday.

Dan Froomkin: Ouch! And many thanks.


Washington, D.C.: Dan,

What's Karl Rove doing voting in Texas when he's a D.C. resident? And how can Texas officials defend having non-residents voting in elections as being legitimate? This really sounds like fraud, especially since Cincinnati, Ohio residents' votes were invalidated in 2004 when they showed up at the wrong precinct!

Dan Froomkin: If things were a bit slower, I think that would have been quite the talker.


Limekiln Lake, N.Y.: I understand that Susan Collins has called for hearings on the Katrina response in her Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. Is this the first time that the GOP-led Congress has called for a hearing that Bush probably would prefer not to have? What price will Sen. Collins pay for this in her party?

Dan Froomkin: The almost total lack of congressional oversight during Bush's tenure has been utterly unprecedented. Just this past Sunday, David S. Broder had a column about "our back-seat Congress."

There have been a few hearings in the past that Bush didn't want. But I don't know where things go from here.


Washington, D.C.: Re: the question of the "percentage of the questions" that you get from "Dem and Repub foot soldiers". I'd also like to know the percentage of questions you get from people like me who are ordinary citizens who are simply disgusted by the partisan hackery of people like you in the media. (Not that you'd ever answer those questions anyway.)

Dan Froomkin: It's small.


Frederick, Md.: Do you believe that when the bodies count starts, fresh anger toward the White House will brew?

Dan Froomkin: Yes.

As I wrote


: "[W]ith every body removed from the attics of New Orleans over the coming weeks, America will remember the colossal failure of government to protect its people."

Well, it'll definitely be anger -- along with outrage, horror, high dudgeon, mortification, shame, etc. Not as clear is who or what it will be directed toward.

I think inevitably, some if not most will be directed at the guy in charge.


Columbia, S.C.: Great work, Dan. Thanks. I don't have any question, just wanted to say thanks and keep it up.

Dan Froomkin: Well thanks so much.

And thank you all for your excellent questions. As usual, I wish I had time to answer more. See you again here in two weeks, and every weekday afternoon on the home page.


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