Talking Points by Terry M. Neal

Teetering on the Precipice

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Terry M. Neal
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, September 16, 2005; 11:18 AM

Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath have left the Bush presidency teetering on the precipice.

For Bush to get back on track, he must restore faith in his leadership, work to restore his appeal among moderate voters and work hard to repair the damage done among already skeptical minorities. Sure, most African Americans and Hispanics vote for Democrats, but improving his percentages just a few points in last year's election helped him close the deal on John Kerry. Had Bush not increased his support among African Americans in Ohio, Kerry might be sitting in the White House right now.

Fair or not, Katrina has further eroded public confidence in the president and his administration, at a time when the war in Iraq, gas prices and concerns over the economy have already taken a serious toll. Most of the polls in the past week have registered record lows for the president, with the composite average approval rating in major polls at 42 percent.

White House officials may say they place little stock in polls; yet that is the reason President Bush addressed the nation last night, when he did, where he did and how he did. And it explains why he said some of the things he said, particularly about taking responsibility for the botched response to Hurricane Katrina, and about the roots of poverty, and about compassion for the less fortunate.

Katrina's aftermath has damaged efforts to reach out to black voters, undermined efforts to recast Republicans as friendly to the poor and disposed, and sent support plummeting among independent swing voters.

Today, the president's party largely enjoys only the support of his conservative base, according to several new polls. And that is not enough to ensure the political longevity of the party, which Bill Clinton, who had similar numbers preceding the 1994 midterms, can attest. A new nonpartisan Pew Poll out on Thursday shows independents favoring Democrats by double digits on a range of issues, including health care, the environment, Iraq, Social Security, the economy, education, energy problems and handling disasters. Among the major issues, the GOP retains its edge only in the handling of terrorism, according to Pew.

Support for Bush's character has eroded in recent months, according to several polls.

And for the first time, the percentage of people who view Bush as a strong leader has dropped below 50 percent -- to 49 percent, compared with 63 percent this time last year, according to a Newsweek poll last week.

The net effect is ominous for Republicans. The Pew Poll asked if the midterms were held today, would you vote for a Democrats or a Republican. The former led 52 percent to 40 percent.

Fortunately for the president the midterms aren't being held today, and he has time to right the ship, despite grave predictions of his party's demise from some liberal pundits.

Here were the four most important sound bites from last night's speech aimed at getting his presidency back on track:

  • "When the federal government fails to meet such an obligation, I as president am responsible for the problem and for the solution. So I have ordered every Cabinet secretary to participate in a comprehensive review of the government response to the hurricane. This government will learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina. We're going to review every action and make necessary changes so that we are better prepared for any challenge of nature or act of evil men that could threaten our people."

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