Bush's Second Great Challenge

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, August 31, 2005 11:36 AM

As the enormity of the disaster along the Gulf Coast slowly comes into focus, President Bush breaks off his vacation to return to Washington today and confront what may be the second great challenge of his presidency.

Bush is unlikely to act as divisively as he did after the first, when he responded to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by invading first Afghanistan and then Iraq. But he already faces tough questions about his slow response to Hurricane Katrina and the relative lack of federal preparation.

Critics and supporters alike agree that in the coming days and weeks, Bush and his aides will be grappling with defining decisions and a test of his leadership.

Among the questions being asked around Washington and the blogosphere this morning:

* If the reason Bush returned to Washington is that he is more effective here, then why didn't he come back two days ago?

* If the White House considers the return from vacation largely symbolic, then what is the symbolism of his long vacation during a war?

* Could Bush and the federal government have done more to prepare for hurricane recovery? Unlike the Asian tsunami, this hurricane was forecast days ahead of time.

* Did any of his previous budget decisions allow the hurricane to cause more damage than it might have otherwise?

* Are National Guard troops and equipment required to restore order in this country many thousands of miles away.

* Will he and his administration meet this disaster quickly and effective with the appropriate civilian and military resources and manpower?

* Will the White House provide the bold leadership and vision that the nation requires?

The Coverage

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "As the devastation from Hurricane Katrina grew clearer Tuesday, President Bush decided to cut short his month-long vacation and return to Washington to oversee the response to what the White House called 'one of the most devastating storms in our nation's history.' . . .

"The abrupt decision to return to Washington represented a turnabout of sorts for a president who for weeks ignored criticism that such a long summer break -- the longest stretch away from Washington of any president in decades -- appeared unseemly at a time when U.S. forces are at war in Iraq. The White House repeatedly defended Bush's sojourn in Texas by noting that modern communications technology meant he was able to lead just as effectively from the ranch as from the Oval Office. . . .

"Asked whether returning to Washington is more symbolic, given his ability to work from the ranch, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said, 'No, I disagree,' but he did not explain what difference it would make for Bush to be in Washington. 'The president's preference is to manage the response from Washington, and that's why he made the decision to return,' McClellan said."

Liz Sidoti writes for the Associated Press: "Bush was expected to visit the ravaged region by week's end, but details on that trip were in flux as the White House worked to make sure a presidential tour would not disrupt the relief and response efforts. . . .

"The president, upon his return to Washington, planned to chair a meeting of a White House task force set up to coordinate the federal efforts to assist hurricane victims across more than a dozen agencies. . . .

"Returning to Washington ahead of schedule also could insulate the president from criticism that he was on vacation during the crisis, and the return could be seen as a symbolic gesture to hurricane victims."

His First Decision

Eileen Putnam writes for the Associated Press: "Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman said Wednesday the Bush administration has decided to release oil from federal petroleum reserves to help refiners affected by Hurricane Katrina.

"The move, which was expected later in the day, is designed to give refineries a temporary supply of crude oil to take the place of interrupted shipments from tankers or offshore oil platforms affected by the storm."

The War and the Hurricane

Ann Scott Tyson writes in The Washington Post: "With thousands of their citizen-soldiers away fighting in Iraq, states hit hard by Hurricane Katrina scrambled to muster forces for rescue and security missions yesterday -- calling up Army bands and water-purification teams, among other units, and requesting help from distant states and the active-duty military. . . .

" 'Missing the personnel is the big thing in this particular event. We need our people,' said Lt. Andy Thaggard, a spokesman for the Mississippi National Guard, which has a brigade of more than 4,000 troops in central Iraq. Louisiana also has about 3,000 Guard troops in Baghdad.

"Mississippi has about 40 percent of its Guard force deployed or preparing to deploy and has called up all remaining Guard units for hurricane relief, Thaggard said. . . .

"Recruiting and retention problems are worsening the strain on Guard forces in hurricane-ravaged states. Alabama's Army National Guard has a strength of 11,000 troops -- or 78 percent of the authorized number. 'We're just losing too many out the back door,' Arnold said."

Will Bunch writes in Editor and Publisher: "At least nine articles in the Times-Picayune from 2004 and 2005 specifically cite the cost of Iraq as a reason for the lack of hurricane- and flood-control dollars.

"Newhouse News Service, in an article posted late Tuesday night at The Times-Picayune web site, reported: 'No one can say they didn't see it coming. . . . Now in the wake of one of the worst storms ever, serious questions are being asked about the lack of preparation.' . . .

" 'The Louisiana congressional delegation urged Congress earlier this year to dedicate a stream of federal money to Louisiana's coast, only to be opposed by the White House. . . . In its budget, the Bush administration proposed a significant reduction in funding for southeast Louisiana's chief hurricane protection project. Bush proposed $10.4 million, a sixth of what local officials say they need.'

"Local officials are now saying, the article reported, that had Washington heeded their warnings about the dire need for hurricane protection, including building up levees and repairing barrier islands, 'the damage might not have been nearly as bad as it turned out to be.' "

The President's Challenge

A New York Times editorial lays out the challenge ahead.

"As the levees of Lake Pontchartrain gave way, flooding New Orleans, it seemed pretty clear that in this case, government did not live up to the job.

"But this seems like the wrong moment to dwell on fault-finding, or even to point out that it took what may become the worst natural disaster in American history to pry President Bush out of his vacation. All the focus now must be on rescuing the survivors. Beyond that lies a long and painful recovery, which must begin with a national vow to help all the storm victims and to save and repair New Orleans.

"People who think of that graceful city and the rest of the Mississippi Delta as tourist destinations must have been reminded, watching the rescue operations, that the real residents of this area are in the main poor and black. The only resources most of them will have to fall back on will need to come from the federal government. . . .

"Right now it looks as if rescuing New Orleans will be a task much more daunting than any city has faced since the San Francisco fire of 1906. It must be a mission for all of us."

A Washington Post editorial notes: "President Bush, who has maintained his weeks-long holiday schedule without regard to the bloodshed in Iraq, is breaking off his summer idyll two days early to tend to the fallout from Katrina. . . .

"We hope that National Guard manpower, supplemented by active-duty Army troops if necessary, is sufficient to respond quickly to the immense needs of those places. The human response must be equal to the devastation wrought by nature."

The Criticism

This White House is particularly attuned to imagery. (See below, for example, to read about its efforts to keep an aircraft carrier out of Bush's backdrop yesterday.) So it was perhaps a slip to allow ABC's Martha Raddatz to snap this photo of Bush playing a guitar presented to him backstage yesterday by a country singer.

Left-leaning bloggers are contrasting that image to those from the ruins of the Gulf Coast.

Liberal Web sites such as Think Progress are expressing outrage: "[E]ven as one of the strongest storms in recorded history rocked the Gulf Coast, President Bush decided to continue his vacation."

John Aravosis at americablog is virtually apoplectic, citing example after example of "too little, too late."

Poll Watch

How the hurricane's aftermath will effect Bush's standing in the polls is anyone's guess. If it offers him a chance to appear presidential and act as a uniter, it could be good for him. But if he's seen as ineffectual, it could be bad. If it distracts the public from the war in Iraq, it could be good. But the expected hike in gas prices could be very bad.

In the meantime, another pre-hurricane poll finds Bush's approval rating at its lowest level ever.

Richard Morin and Dan Balz write in The Washington Post: "Rising gas prices and ongoing bloodshed in Iraq continue to take their toll on President Bush, whose standing with the public has sunk to an all-time low, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll.

"The survey found Bush's job approval rating at 45 percent, down seven points since January and the lowest ever recorded for the president in Post-ABC surveys. Fifty-three percent disapproved of the job Bush is doing. . . .

"What may have pushed Bush's overall ratings down in the latest poll is pervasive dissatisfaction over soaring gasoline prices. Two-thirds of those surveyed said gas prices are causing financial hardship to them or their families. Gas prices stand to go even higher after Hurricane Katrina's rampage through the oil-rich Gulf of Mexico.

"More ominously for the president, six in 10 Americans said there are steps the administration could take to reduce gas prices. . . .

"The poll numbers paint a portrait of national frustration with the direction and leadership of the country, which, if not reversed in coming months, is likely to color the environment for next year's midterm elections, putting incumbents in both parties on the defensive."

Here are the complete poll results .

What Americans Would Say to Bush About Iraq

The Gallup Organization is out with another of its invaluable compendiums of open-ended responses from Americans. This time, more than 1,000 people were asked: "If you could talk with President Bush for 15 minutes about the situation in Iraq, what would you, personally, advise him to do?"

The most common "broad response category": "Pull the troops out and come home/end it." That got 41 percent.

I see that two words -- "Get out" -- were a common response.

Another common sentiment: "Finish what he started."

And here's one of the more colorful responses: "First of all, what the (swear word) are you lying about? Why are we there? We don't know why so just get the (swear word) out of there. Stop playing games. Why are we fighting a war for these reasons? My son's there, where's your son?"

The Most Important Speech Nobody Heard

Although it was eclipsed by the hurricane, Bush yesterday delivered a speech about the war in Iraq that not only offered a new rationale for victory, but upped the war's rhetorical ante.

Here's the text of the speech.

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush on Tuesday answered growing anti-war protests with a fresh reason for American troops to continue fighting in Iraq: protection of the country's vast oil fields that he said would otherwise fall under the control of terrorist extremists. . . .

"A one-time oilman, Bush has rejected charges that the war in Iraq is a struggle to control the nation's vast oil wealth. While Bush has avoided making links between the war and Iraq's oil reserves, the soaring cost of gasoline has focused attention on global petroleum sources.

"Bush said the Iraqi oil industry, already suffering from sabotage and lost revenues, must not fall under the control of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida forces in Iraq led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

" 'If Zarqawi and bin Laden gain control of Iraq, they would create a new training ground for future terrorist attacks,' Bush said. 'They'd seize oil fields to fund their ambitions. They could recruit more terrorists by claiming a historic victory over the United States and our coalition.' "

James Sterngold writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "President Bush, in perhaps his starkest and most contentious depiction of the stakes in Iraq, characterized the war there as a battle over the fate of democracy, just like World War II, and suggested that the only alternative was a dangerous retreat that would embolden terrorists.

"The president used a speech Tuesday marking the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II to offer an implicit, but harsh critique of previous presidents, including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, for not responding more forcefully to earlier terrorist attacks. . . .

"He likened the wars he launched in Afghanistan and Iraq to the war launched by President Franklin Roosevelt, and he suggested that those urging a withdrawal from Iraq were dishonoring the sacrifices made by U.S. sailors and soldiers in World War II. . . .

"[T]he carefully crafted plaudits for that older generation became just a backdrop for the president's appeal for support in the current difficult war in Iraq. Just about every aspect of World War II that Bush described -- the battles to confront tyranny, and the efforts to build democracies in the defeated countries -- became a piece of the analogy he was constructing to the present struggle."

Peter Baker and Josh White write in The Washington Post: "Invoking the spirit of Franklin D. Roosevelt, President Bush on Tuesday cast the war in Iraq as the modern-day moral equivalent of the struggle against Nazi fascism and Japanese imperialism in World War II, arguing that the United States cannot retreat without disastrous consequences."

Baker and White also note this detail of stage management: "Although Bush gave his speech only hundreds of yards from the towering hulk of the USS Ronald Reagan at Naval Air Station North Island, the White House made certain the ship was not in the television shot -- an image that could remind viewers of the president's 2003 speech on the Iraq invasion given on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in front of a premature 'Mission Accomplished' banner."

There was a big ship directly behind him, but not the aircraft carrier -- which, as you can see in this White House photo , was at his side.

Peter Wallsten and Tony Perry write in the Los Angeles Times: "The picturesque setting, enthusiastic crowd and historical references contrasted sharply with the political realities facing Bush as he returns today to Washington, where some lawmakers have begun comparing Iraq to Vietnam, a war with far more negative connotations than the Allied victory over Japan and Nazi Germany."

Here are a few excerpts from the speech:

"As we mark this anniversary, we are again a nation at war. Once again, war came to our shores with a surprise attack that killed thousands in cold blood. Once again, we face determined enemies who follow a ruthless ideology that despises everything America stands for. . . .

"Now, as then, our enemies have made their fight a test of American credibility and resolve. Now, as then, they are trying to intimidate free people and break our will. And now, as then, they will fail. . . .

"After September the 11th, 2001, . . . America will not run in defeat, and we will not forget our responsibilities. We have brought down two murderous regimes. We're driving terrorists from their sanctuaries. We're putting the terrorists on the run all across the world."

It was a painstakingly crafted speech, artfully asserting every imaginable parallel between World War II and Iraq, while disregarding any of the important distinctions.

For instance, critics argue that attacking Iraq was a distraction from the war on terror (as if the U.S. had attacked Cuba after Pearl Harbor, rather than Japan) and that continuing to fight there actually makes our most dangerous enemies stronger.

Constitution Watch

Richard W. Stevenson and David E. Sanger write in the New York Times: "Seeking to promote the ratification of the proposed Iraqi constitution without placing more of an American stamp on the process, the Bush administration is planning steps to encourage approval of the new charter while avoiding a specific endorsement or outright campaigning on its behalf, White House officials said Tuesday. . . .

" 'We will continue to be a voice and a facilitator of greater understanding between the three communities,' said Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser. 'But it is their document and they will have to take the lead on this point.' "

The Times also spoke to Dan Bartlett, Bush's counselor. And here's a breathtaking act of spin: "In a way, Mr. Bartlett suggested, the insurgency had provided an impetus to Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis to come together by leading them to see the necessity of stabilizing their own country."

Decamping from Crawford

Angela K. Brown writes for the Associated Press: "A woman who led an anti-war protest for nearly a month near President Bush's ranch said Tuesday that she's glad Bush never showed up to discuss her son's death in Iraq, saying the president's absence 'galvanized the peace movement.'

"Cindy Sheehan's comments came as war protesters packed up their campsite near the ranch and prepared to leave Tuesday for a three-week bus tour."

Bush's America

Bush administration critics have long argued that the improving economy that the president often boasts about is in fact not improving the lot of the average American. They may be right.

Jonathan Weisman and Ceci Connolly write in The Washington Post: "Despite robust economic growth last year, 1.1 million more Americans slipped into poverty in 2004, while household incomes stagnated and earnings fell, the Census Bureau reported yesterday. "

David Leonhardt writes in the New York Times: "Even as the economy grew, incomes stagnated last year and the poverty rate rose, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday. It was the first time on record that household incomes failed to increase for five straight years."

So who's benefiting from the economic recovery? Apparently, the very rich.

Where's Cheney?

Vice President Cheney, who has spent part of August at his home outside scenic Jackson, Wyo., remains there today -- although his spokeswoman, Lea Anne McBride, doesn't call it vacation.

"He's working from Wyoming today," McBride told me this morning.

So what is his day like in Jackson? Any fly-fishing on the Snake River during his work day?

"He's already had his morning briefings," McBride said. "He'll have some other internal staff meetings." Beyond that, McBride said, she would have to check and get back to me. I missed her call back but will try to reach her again.

And when is he coming back? "He will certainly be coming back. I'm not able to tell you the day right now. I don't have that handy."

Beer Watch

It turns out that I have a lot of passionate, articulate readers who have a great deal of expertise, mostly personal, when it comes to alcoholism, recovery, and the issue of non-alcoholic beer. (See yesterday 's item on "Bush's Beer.") I will try to do your e-mails justice soon.

It's All About Karl Rove

David Allen writes in the Los Angeles Daily Bulletin about Bush's visit to the James L. Brulte Senior Center on Monday. The center is named after a former state legislator, who attended.

"After Bush's talk, Brulte, who once stayed overnight at the White House, introduced his brothers to the president, the first lady, senior adviser Karl Rove and press secretary Scott McClellan.

"When they left, Brulte's younger brother, Rick, grabbed his arm and said, impressed: 'I didn't know you knew Karl Rove.' "

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