For Bush, Next Moves Are Key to Rest of Term

Resilience and resolve have helped President Bush rise repeatedly above low expectations. Now he must overcome negative perceptions of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina.
Resilience and resolve have helped President Bush rise repeatedly above low expectations. Now he must overcome negative perceptions of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina. (By Mark Wilson -- Getty Images)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 5, 2005

The first week of September 2005 likely will be remembered as one of the most troubled weeks of George W. Bush's presidency, a time in which natural disaster combined with bureaucratic bungling in ways that threatened to inundate an administration already on the defensive.

Even before Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast last Monday, Bush was buffeted by public dissatisfaction over the war in Iraq and consumer outrage over rising gasoline prices. But the federal government's widely criticized response to the hurricane's devastation in New Orleans and elsewhere turned a challenging environment into one that is potentially overwhelming.

His success in undoing the negative perceptions of the past few days could be critical to sustaining the political capital necessary to achieve other objectives of his second term -- from avoiding further erosion of support for his Iraq policies to domestic initiatives yet to come.

One goal is the reshaping of the federal judiciary, and the death of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist late Saturday presents Bush with the second opportunity in two months to put his stamp on the high court. It also adds to the burdens of an already besieged White House.

The confirmation of Judge John G. Roberts Jr. to the Supreme Court and selection of a successor to Rehnquist will be significant priorities for Bush, and in the long run, changing the courts may be seen as among his most significant domestic accomplishments. But Hurricane Katrina may prove to be the defining test of his second term, just as the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the Iraq war defined his first.

Working in Bush's favor as he deals with these multiple challenges is a record of success at moments of crisis, particularly in the days after the terrorist attacks, as well as a political resilience and resolve that have repeatedly helped him to rise above low expectations. He also oversees a White House staff praised for its efficiency even by political opponents. But the politics of the Supreme Court and, particularly, flood relief are highly charged politically, as the White House well knows.

"He understands that emotions are running high, that people are tired, people are angry and frustrated, particularly in the region," White House counselor Dan Bartlett said. "But at the end of the day, we've got to focus on improving the situation, saving lives and getting the recovery situation underway. The politics will be what they are. We will deal with it, but what the public wants more than anything else is to focus on the task at hand."

Veterans of other White Houses were also quick to note yesterday that the political standing of any president is defined and revised many times, with public impressions subject to ever-changing events and how well they are handled. In that sense, a president has numerous opportunities to rebuild public support and political strength.

The White House has redrawn the president's schedule to refocus on hurricane relief and, now, a second Supreme Court battle. His aides are building what one called "maximum flexibility" into what is normally a well-mapped schedule.

"My impression of what they're trying to do after the first few days is to recover exactly the kind of performance that they say they're good at, which is essentially an executive-style leadership," said Charles O. Jones, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin. "That is to say, 'We've got good people in all the top positions, we're hierarchical, we plan.' That's how they're trying to recover. You go with your strength to a point of weakness."

But that management style seemed to fail the president in the first days of the Katrina crisis. Bush's August was already planned to include events designed to rebuild support for his Iraq policies and to attempt to keep alive his hopes for restructuring Social Security. As New Orleans was filling up with water, the president headed to California for those events.

As a result, he was slow to get back to Washington. Administration allies, who normally applaud the planning of the White House, said that in this case, the system proved to be a problem. "It's difficult to move on a dime," a former administration official said. "Now, you would hope they're going to be nimbler."

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