Dealing With Political Disaster

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Tuesday, September 6, 2005; 1:21 PM

President Bush somehow missed the significance of what was happening on the Gulf Coast last week as he and his political guru, Karl Rove, flitted between Texas and California and, finally, Washington.

But now, facing what is clearly a full-scale political disaster, Rove and a handful of other masterful political operatives have gone into overdrive. They are back in campaign mode.

This campaign is to salvage Bush's reputation.

Like previous Rove operations, it calls for multiple appearances by the president in controlled environments in which he can appear leader-like. It calls for extensive use of Air Force One and a massive deployment of spinners.

It doesn't necessarily include any change in policy. It certainly doesn't include any admission of error.

It utilizes the classic Rovian tactic of attacking critics rather than defending against their criticism -- and of throwing up chaff to muddle the issue and throw the press off the scent.

It calls for public expressions of outrage over the politicization of the issue and of those who would play the "blame game." While at the same time, it is utterly political in nature and heavily reliant on shifting the blame elsewhere.

But in some ways, this post-Katrina campaign poses Bush's aides with unprecedented challenges.

The problem -- an achingly slow federal response to what has turned out to be one of the greatest natural disasters this country has ever faced -- can be traced at least in part to one of the Bush White House's most defining characteristics: The protective bubble within which the president operates.

Bush's aides intentionally keep him mentally and physically aloof from any ugliness -- political or otherwise. It lets them keep tight control over the presidential imagery and stay on message.

But inside his bubble, Bush first failed to recognize what was becoming clear to almost anyone watching the news: That Americans needed help. And in his two meticulously staged visits to the Gulf Coast on Friday and Monday, it is precisely because Bush was kept so far away from dissension or mess that he appeared so out of touch.

He cracked jokes on Friday, including one about his drinking days in New Orleans, but has yet to confront the true horror of the situation so widely seen on TV. He has yet to acknowledge the disgrace of a major American city being rendered uninhabitable on his watch. He has yet to come face to face with people left to suffer for days in hellish conditions and explain to them why their government failed them. And he has yet to demonstrate the strength that Americans require from their president in a time of crisis.

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