By Michael A. Fletcher and Richard Morin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 13, 2005
Touring devastated portions of New Orleans yesterday, President Bush sought to reassure the public that the government is responding to Hurricane Katrina with equity and dispatch, even as his standing hit record lows amid broad support for an independent investigation of the federal response to the storm.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that clear majorities of Americans disapprove of the way officials at all levels of government are handling the recovery from Katrina. A 54 percent majority disapproved of Bush's response to Katrina, while an even larger majority -- 57 percent -- say state and local officials should bear responsibility for the problems.
Attitudes toward Bush and the government's overall response to Hurricane Katrina fracture along clear racial lines. Nearly three in four whites doubted the federal government would have responded more quickly to those trapped in New Orleans if they had been wealthier and white rather than poorer and black, the poll found. But an equal share of blacks disagreed, saying help would have come sooner if the victims had been more affluent whites.
More than six in 10 blacks -- 63 percent -- said the problems with the hurricane relief effort are an indication of continuing racial inequity in this country, a view rejected by more than seven in 10 whites, according to the poll.
Speaking to reporters after touring New Orleans yesterday, Bush sought to dispel the view that race played a role in the government's response to the disaster. "When those Coast Guard choppers, many of who were first on the scene, were pulling people off roofs, they didn't check the color of a person's skin," Bush said. "They wanted to save lives."
Bush vowed that the massive federal response, which already has received funding of more than $62 billion and involves more than 71,000 federal personnel on the ground, would be managed fairly. "The storm didn't discriminate, and neither did the recovery effort," he said, adding: "The rescue efforts were comprehensive, and the recovery will be comprehensive."
The bungled response to the hurricane has helped drag down Bush's job-approval rating, which now stands at 42 percent -- the lowest of his presidency -- in the Post-ABC poll and down three points since the hurricane hit two weeks ago. Fifty-seven percent disapprove of Bush's performance, a double-digit increase since January.
Even some members of Bush's own party appear to have lost faith in their leader: The president's overall approval rating among Republicans has declined from 91 percent in January to 78 percent in the latest poll.
Overall, half the country now characterizes Bush as a "strong leader" -- down 12 points since May of last year. And the proportion who say he can be "trusted in a crisis" likewise has fallen from 60 percent to 49 percent now.
The survey found that 76 percent of the public favors an investigation of federal storm response efforts by an independent commission similar to the one that probed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The proposal drew strong bipartisan support: 64 percent of all Republicans and 83 percent of Democrats favored creating the independent panel.
Republican leaders in Congress already have announced plans for a congressional inquiry into the federal storm response -- a probe that seven in 10 Americans fear will "get bogged down in partisan politics," according to the poll. Bush also has vowed to lead an investigation of the federal response.
"It's really important that as we take a step back and learn lessons, that we are in a position to adequately answer the question: 'Are we prepared for major catastrophes?' " Bush said in New Orleans yesterday.
In the aftermath of what likely will be the most costly natural disaster in U.S. history, six in 10 Americans want lawmakers to delay action on pending legislation that would cut federal taxes by an estimated $70 billion over the next five years. Those proposed cuts include eliminating the inheritance tax, a Bush priority that supporters now say faces an uncertain fate. Half of all Republicans joined with two-thirds of Democrat to support delaying proposed tax cuts.
Although there is a bipartisan consensus on some issues, on others Americans continue to view the federal response to the hurricane through a partisan lens. More than six in 10 Americans are critical of the federal government response to the storm, including 79 percent of all Democrats and 41 percent of Republicans.
And half the public says the bigger problem is that people failed to take the storm warnings seriously, while nearly as many said the bigger problem was the failure of government to provide transportation to those in the path of the storm.
The poll was conducted with 1,201 randomly selected adults, in an interviews between Sept. 8-11. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points.
Amid continuing criticism of his handling of the crisis, Bush yesterday wrapped up a two-day tour of the devastated Gulf Coast -- his third visit to the region since Katrina struck. After spending the night aboard the USS Iwo Jima, which is docked in New Orleans and is serving as a command center for the relief effort, Bush began his day with a briefing on storm recovery efforts before touring New Orleans in a military convoy.
He was joined by two vocal critics of the federal government's response to the storm: New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin (D) and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D).
Bush, who later met with other local officials near New Orleans before surveying storm damage in Gulfport, Miss., played down any differences with the mayor and governor, saying he wanted to cultivate close cooperation across all levels of government. "We got a lot of work to do, a whole lot of work to do," Bush said. "And my pledge again to the governor and the mayor is the federal government will work closely in coordination with their authorities."
Bush aides privately view the latest poll numbers with gloomy realism but take heart from Bush's past ability to push the Republican Congress to follow his lead even when his popularity has flagged. Despite his political problems, they note, the Senate seems almost certain to confirm John G. Roberts Jr. as the next chief justice.
"We're facing some stiff political headwinds," said one senior official who asked not to be named in order to speak candidly. "But George W. Bush has never been a president who's dominated in approval ratings. Where he's been strong has been in two areas -- getting his agenda through and helping the Republican Party in elections."
Others are not so sure the end is near. Even if Bush impresses the country with a more vigorous effort in the Gulf Coast and the story fades from the headlines, some strategists noted that the rest of the political terrain contains little encouraging for the White House.
"The most frightening thing for the White House might be that his numbers on the economy are worse than his numbers on Katrina," said Joel P. Johnson, a former senior adviser in the Clinton White House. "The only way for a president to reverse bad poll numbers is to work your way out of them . . . on economic issues, foreign policy issues, creating jobs, providing health care -- all things that don't look likely."
Assistant polling director Claudia Deane and staff writer Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.