By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, September 13, 2005 12:06 PM
Rap star Kanye West's seemingly radical off-script assertion two weeks ago during a Hurricane Katrina telethon that "George Bush doesn't care about black people" has become a full-blown topic of public policy debate.
A slew of recent polls have found that large majorities of blacks believe that the federal response to Hurricane Katrina would have been considerably speedier had those trapped in New Orleans been rich and white, and that the slow response was an indication of continuing racial inequity in this country. Large majorities of whites disagree.
Most of the press coverage of these poll results has concentrated on the vast racial divide they expose. But that's not necessarily the biggest story.
The latest Gallup cuts to the chase and asks: "Do you think George W. Bush does - or does not - care about black people?"
Among blacks, 21 percent say he does and 72 percent say he doesn't.
Among whites, 67 percent say he does and 26 percent say he doesn't.
Overall, 62 percent say he does and 31 percent say he doesn't.
Obviously, that's a pretty dramatic rift. But consider the absolute numbers: Three out of four blacks, one out of four whites, and one out of three people across the country regardless of race actually believe that President Bush doesn't care about black people.
Sorry, but the question: "Does the president of the United State care about black people" should be a no-brainer. Of course he does should be the overwhelmingly common answer.
Here's a question for Washington's punditocracy: What percentage of people believing that the president doesn't care about black people should be considered alarming?
Bush and the White House are trying urgently to refute this belief with imagery from Bush's three (and soon to be four) trips to the region.
But at his morning photo-op yesterday, his first comments on the issue were far from comprehensive.
"Q Sir, what do you make of some of the comments that have been made by quite a number of people that there was a racial component to some of the people that were left behind and left without help?
"THE PRESIDENT: My attitude is this: The storm didn't discriminate, and neither will the recovery effort. When those Coast Guard choppers, many of whom were first on the scene, were pulling people off roofs, they didn't check the color of a person's skin. They wanted to save lives."
One could argue, of course, that the storm disproportionately impacted those who were left, abandoned by the government, in its path -- most of whom were black and poor. And while no one suggests that chopper pilots were racially selective about who they rescued, the real question is what took the choppers and the other rescuers so long? Why weren't there more of them?
Lisa de Moraes reported on West's criticism in The Washington Post on September 3.Attack and Defense
Among Bush's leading critics, of course, is Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, who told Wolf Blitzer on CNN last week: "I do not think that this president cares about everybody in America. . . .
"I'm not disputing the fact the president is a nice man, and maybe he's compassionate in his personal life. The truth is that Americans have suffered deeply under this presidency, 80 percent of Americans -- and that black people, Hispanic people, and poor people and old people have suffered disproportionately."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the highest-ranking African American in Bush's government, defended Bush on racial issues yesterday in an interview at the New York Times.
"Look, I find it very strange to think that people would think the President of the United States would sit deciding who ought to be helped on the basis of color, most especially this President," Rice said. "It's just -- it's (a) not true and it's (b) poisonous that somebody would say that. And I hope that people would be challenged on the assumption if they're going to say it. Now, what evidence is there that this is the case? Why would you say such a thing? What makes you think so? . . .
"[I]f you look at how he did among black voters in the state that he was governor, you have a very different picture. And that says to me that, in that case, familiarity has given you a very different picture of this President and his concerns about blacks. But I know President Bush and he talks about issues of race because he -- because the kind of lack of opportunity that still afflicts -- that afflicts a lot of poor people but still afflicts disproportionately blacks as -- and poor, is something that he is concerned about."Poll Watch
Michael A. Fletcher and Richard Morin write in The Washington Post: "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. . . .
"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."
CNN reports: "A majority of Americans surveyed in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Monday said they disapproved of President Bush's handling of the response to Hurricane Katrina.
"Conducted September 8-11, the poll said 54 percent of respondents expressed disapproval of Bush's handling of the crisis, compared to 43 percent who said they approved."
CNN also reports: "White and black Americans view Hurricane Katrina's aftermath in starkly different ways, with more blacks viewing race a factor in problems with the federal response, according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Monday."
Susan Page and Maria Puente write in USA Today: "There is a lot that Americans agree about in the wake of Hurricane Katrina: that government agencies initially stumbled but are doing better now, for one, and that more money and attention should be paid to addressing the issue of poverty.
"But a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll taken Thursday through Sunday finds a stark racial divide on other issues, including attitudes toward the hurricane's victims, the performance of President Bush and the reasons the government's early response was so wanting. . . .
"Overall, the president's job-approval rating is 46%, essentially the same as the 45% rating in the Gallup Poll 10 days earlier."Or Is It More a Poverty Issue?
Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The vivid images of poor residents, most of them African American, stranded across New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina have generated more discussion in the nation's capital about poverty than any event in years. . . .
"[M]any analysts believe that the stark pictures of families trapped amid the rising waters have made the persistence of poverty tangible to many Americans in a way unmatched by years of government reports. On the day New Orleans flooded, in fact, the Census Bureau released an annual report showing that the number of Americans in poverty rose for the fourth consecutive year."Bush To Speak
The White House announced this morning that Bush will address the nation from Louisiana on Thursday at 9 p.m. ET. "The president will talk to the American people about the recovery and the way forward on the longer-term rebuilding," spokesman Scott McClellan said.
Bush is also taking a few questions today after meeting with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, though that comes after my early deadline today.
It's unlikely, however, that Bush will forthrightly confront a lot of the tougher questions facing him in either forum.
Bush has made it quite clear that he has no interest in addressing the one question uppermost on the press's -- and arguably the people's -- mind: How could this have happened on his watch?
And after a long period starting in November during which he held monthly press conferences, Bush hasn't taken more than a few questions at a time from the press corps in almost three and a half months -- since May 31.
But even in his short press availabilities, it would be worth trying to get meaningful answers about his state of mind. Because how he personally feels about the crisis and whether or not he shares the concerns of so many Americans is turning into a key issue. And ducking those sorts of questions is harder.
So here are some questions that might be more fruitful than others:
* Sir, what were your personal feelings when you first grasped the enormity of what had happened along the Gulf Coast? And about when was that?
* Sir, apparently many African Americans believe that the federal government was slow in rescuing people stranded in New Orleans because many of those people were black and poor. I know you've denied that was the case, but do you understand why they might feel that way?
* Sir, you've said countless times that you don't govern based on the polls. But can you explain the polls? You are not a popular president anymore. How do you think that happened?
* Sir, it is increasingly said that you operate in a bubble, sealing yourself away from dissenting voices, and on those rare occasions that people tell you bad news, you yell at them. Doesn't that make it harder for you to make intelligent decisions?Goodbye, Tax Cuts
Brody Mullins writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "In a major shift of priorities after Hurricane Katrina, Republican leaders in Congress have delayed plans to extend dividend and capital gains tax cuts and may shelve them for the rest of the year. . . .
"Still, a delay in extending tax cuts, coming at a time when President Bush's popularity has dropped in polls, could introduce new doubts about whether the president's tax cut will outlast his presidency. The White House has considered the early part of the president's second term its most auspicious window for action. Next year, Congress will be enmeshed in midterm election pressures. After that, the president faces the prospect of seeing his influence ebb as a lame duck with the nation looking toward the election of his successor in 2008."Hello Czar?
Michael Forsythe writes for Bloomberg: "President George W. Bush, seeking to restore public confidence in his ability to handle a crisis, may appoint a high-profile 'czar' to oversee the Gulf Coast recovery.
"Bush, who yesterday named R. David Paulison, 57, head of the U.S. Fire Administration, as acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to replace Michael Brown, is now looking for someone with a telegenic presence as well as proven management and leadership skills to take on the reconstruction-czar job, said an administration aide who asked not to be identified."Trip Watch
David Zucchino, Solomon Moore and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar write in the Los Angeles Times about Bush's day along the Gulf Coast, including a drive through parts of New Orleans.
"Bush, riding upright in a rumbling military truck convoy, squinted at vacant shotgun shacks and debris-crusted streets, ducking at times to avoid jutting tree branches and power lines. He was joined in the jostling truck by military commanders, federal officials, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco."
They note, however, that "the convoy did not happen upon the humbled city's saddest sights -- the white-shrouded mortuary teams poking into once-flooded wards, collecting the bodies of Katrina's victims."Bye Bye Brownie
Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "Michael D. Brown resigned on Monday as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, saying that he wanted to avoid distracting the agency at a time when it faces a major challenge. . . .
"'The press was too focused on what did we do, what didn't we do, the whole blame game,' he said....
"Mr. Brown, 50, said he had felt no pressure to resign. He said he made his decision on Sunday with his family after a long conversation on Saturday night with Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff.
" 'Andy was very, very supportive of me,' Mr. Brown said."
Stevenson also addresses a puzzling exchange between Bush and reporters in Bush's afternoon photo op.
"Asked about Mr. Brown's resignation after he toured a school in Mississippi on Monday afternoon, Mr. Bush declined to comment. He told reporters, 'Maybe you know something we don't know.'
"He pointedly brushed off questions about how Mr. Brown and the administration had handled the storm, saying 'don't ask me again' about the subject."
But, Stevenson writes: "Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, later told reporters aboard Air Force One on the trip back to Washington that Mr. Bush was informed on Monday morning of Mr. Brown's resignation but was not sure when asked about it whether the decision had been made public."
Several reporters and bloggers jumped on Bush's statement as an admission of ignorance -- and therefore as a symptom of his detachment. But in fact, it was more a symptom of his duplicity.Bush's Multitasking Ability
In a comment reminiscent of the mockery of former President Gerald Ford that he couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time, Bush insisted somewhat defensively yesterday that he can in fact do two things at once.
Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush is balancing a harried schedule of diplomatic duties -- from Iraq to China and the United Nations -- while working to stay on top of hurricane recovery efforts that most Americans say should be his No. 1 priority. . . .
"He's fitting those in between meetings with world leaders who came to the United States for a gathering of the United Nations in New York, where he planned to publicly thank world leaders for their contributions to storm relief.
"Before leaving Tuesday afternoon for the United Nations, Bush was hosting Iraqi President Jalal Talabani for a closed-door meeting in the Oval Office, followed by a joint news conference in the East Room."
Asked yesterday whether his upcoming focus on foreign policy would distract him from hurricane issues, Bush replied: "I can do more than one thing at one time. That's what -- I hope you -- by the time I'm finished [being] President, I hope you'll realize that the government can do more than one thing at one time, and individuals in the government can. And so I'll be in constant touch with -- I have a hurricane recovery briefing every morning, for example. I'll be in touch with Mike Chertoff. Andy Card, on my staff, will be in touch with the appropriate people. And so if I'm focusing on the hurricane, I've got the capacity to focus on foreign policy, and vice versa. But I thank you for asking that question."About Those Levees
Bush was asked yesterday morning about his declaration on a live television interview last Thursday that "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."
He explained: "What I was referring to is this. When that storm came by, a lot of people said we dodged a bullet. When that storm came through at first, people said, whew. There was a sense of relaxation, and that's what I was referring to. And I, myself, thought we had dodged a bullet. You know why? Because I was listening to people, probably over the airways, say, the bullet has been dodged. And that was what I was referring to."
Yesterday, Joe Hagan and Joseph T. Hallinan explored in the Wall Street Journal whether media outlets initially gave the impression that the levees had held, and concluded: "Some did, some didn't."
But as many, many liberal blogs have noted -- see, for instance, Daily Kos -- it's not as if the coverage indicated that the storm hadn't been a major disaster.
And as I wrote in my Sept. 2 column, there have been plenty of warnings over the years that the levees could fail in a major hurricane.The News From Hattiesburg
Sometimes the best place to find out what the White House is doing is, well, anywhere but the White House.
Case in point: Nikki Davis Maute writes in the Hattiesburg (Miss.) American: "Shortly after Hurricane Katrina roared through South Mississippi knocking out electricity and communication systems, the White House ordered power restored to a pipeline that sends fuel to the Northeast.
"That order - to restart two power substations in Collins that serve Colonial Pipeline Co. - delayed efforts by at least 24 hours to restore power to two rural hospitals and a number of water systems in the Pine Belt. . . .
"Dan Jordan, manager of Southern Pines Electric Power Association, said Vice President Dick Cheney's office called and left voice mails twice shortly after the storm struck, saying the Collins substations needed power restored immediately."The Talabani Visit
Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said in an interview yesterday that the United States could withdraw as many as 50,000 troops by the end of the year, declaring there are enough Iraqi forces trained and ready to begin assuming control in cities throughout the country.
"After the White House and Pentagon were contacted for comment, however, a senior adviser to Talabani called The Washington Post to say Talabani did not intend to suggest a specific timeline for withdrawal. 'He is afraid . . . this might put the notion of a timetable on this thing,' the adviser said. 'The exact figure of what would be required will undeniably depend on the level of insurgency [and] the level of Iraqi capability.'
"In the interview, Talabani said he planned to discuss reductions in U.S. forces during a private meeting with President Bush today, and said he believed the United States could begin pulling out some troops immediately."
Bush has insisted that timetables would only embolden the enemy.
VandeHei writes: "Talabani's statement has the potential to put Bush in a difficult position if the troops are not pulled out by year's end, since critics are certain to ask why U.S. soldiers cannot come home when Iraq's own president says they can. The two leaders will hold a joint news conference today after their meeting."
And in the latest Gallup Poll, 41 percent of those polled support an immediate and total withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
Mark Hosenball writes in Newsweek: "Analysts at the Defense Intelligence Agency have begun war-gaming scenarios for what might happen in Iraq if U.S. force levels were cut back or eliminated, say counterterrorism and defense sources. The officials, who asked not to be named because of the sensitive subject matter, declined to discuss specifics of the DIA analyses, which they indicate are in the preliminary stages. Some officials say that people in the intelligence community are leery about engaging in speculative exercises for fear of being accused by conservatives of undermining George W. Bush's administration policy. However, others say that this analysis could support staying the course in Iraq if a U.S. pullout would result in greater insurgent violence or a religious civil war."Plame Watch
Sam Coates writes in The Washington Post about the plight of low-level White House officials who are summoned to appear before a grand jury.Rove Watch
Michael E. Ruane wrote in The Washington Post on Saturday: "A staff attorney with the Texas secretary of state said yesterday that she was fired this week for violating press protocols when she spoke to a Washington Post reporter who was working on a story about presidential adviser Karl Rove."
Zeke MacCormack wrote in the San Antonio Express-News that the lawyer said she was dismissed for violating an agency policy that directs staff to refer controversial inquiries to senior officials -- but that she didn't know she was speaking to a reporter and that Rove never was mentioned.
George Rush and Joanna Molloy write in the New York Daily News: "President Bush can't resist a little crank-yankin' -- even in the midst of a disaster. Last weekend, Rep. Peter King (R-L.I.) returned a call from FDNY Deputy Chief Bob Maynes, who's been down in New Orleans. The person who picked up asked, 'How come you're not down here with your men?' King couldn't quite place the voice, until the guy on the other end said, 'Hey, Pedro' -- Dubya's nickname for King."