Who's in Charge? Karl Rove!

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, September 15, 2005; 12:00 PM

All you really need to know about the White House's post-Katrina strategy -- and Bush's carefully choreographed address on national television tonight -- is this little tidbit from the ninth paragraph of Elisabeth Bumiller and Richard W. Stevenson's story in the New York Times this morning:

"Republicans said Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff and Mr. Bush's chief political adviser, was in charge of the reconstruction effort."

Rove's leadership role suggests quite strikingly that any and all White House decisions and pronouncements regarding the recovery from the storm are being made with their political consequences as the primary consideration. More specifically: With an eye toward increasing the likelihood of Republican political victories in the future, pursuing long-cherished conservative goals, and bolstering Bush's image.

That is Rove's hallmark.

Rove, Bush's long-time political adviser and the "architect" of Bush's ascendancy, was rewarded after the 2004 election with a position at the White House with overt policy responsibilities. But whereas in some previous White Houses, governance took precedence over campaigning once the election was safely over, Rove has shown no sign of ever putting policy goals above political ones. (See my Rove profile.)

Tonight's speech promises two classic features of the Rove approach.

Bush will take advantage of powerful imagery -- the Associated Press reports the speech will be held in historic Jackson Square, with the famous St. Louis Cathedral as a backdrop -- and he won't risk having anyone around who might disagree with him or ask an impertinent question. In fact, the AP says, there won't be a live audience at all. (And even the journalists covering the event are being told they won't be allowed to stray from their press vans.)

As for the speech itself, it will inevitably seek to answer any naysaying about Bush by recasting him in the heroic, leadership role he played after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- while advocating a range of measures that are dear to the conservative political agenda.

It will, on the other hand, feature one very unRovian tactic. Typically, it is the Democrats who are blamed for wanting to solve problems by throwing money at them. But tonight, Bush will be the one throwing the money around.

Will it work? Rove has an astonishing track record of success. But at the same time, Bush finds himself today a deeply unpopular president according to the opinion polls, particularly damaged by his lackluster response to the protracted, televised suffering in New Orleans.

And Rove himself has not been at his best of late. Unlike many of Bush's advisers, who have plausible deniability for his initial under-reaction because they weren't with him on vacation, Rove was tagging along with the president, blithely touring the West Coast even as the Gulf Coast drowned. Rove is haunted by the possibility of indictment by a federal grand jury investigating the leak of a CIA agent. And according to Time magazine, he was briefly hospitalized last week with painful kidney stones.

Even many of the president's traditional allies say Bush -- and by extension, Rove -- have been off their political game. We'll know better by tomorrow morning whether that continues to be the case.

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