President Faces Series of Challenges

Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Associate Editor
Friday, September 9, 2005 12:00 PM

Washington Post associate editor Robert G. Kaiser was online Friday, Sept. 9, at noon ET to discuss the current issues challenging President Bush , from the Supreme Court to Hurricane Katrina to the war in Iraq.

The transcript follows.


Albany, N.Y.: How damaging to Bush are the revelations that the top FEMA officials have no real experience in emergency management?

Robert G. Kaiser: Greetings to all. We'll have a busy hour, judging by the first batches of good questions already in hand.

This has been one of the worst weeks in George W. Bush's presidency, for sure. After 40 years in this business, I have learned never to try to fully evaluate a big, dramatic story while it is still unfolding. So I will resist drawing sweeping conclusions beyond the obvious--such as the first sentence of this paragraph.

So I can't answer Albany's question. But I think we can be confident that the lack of competent leadership at FEMA is going to make this political crisis worse for Bush than it had to be.


New York, N.Y.: At what point does Bush's bungled relief and PR response to Katrina begin to peel away support for his war on terror? Is anyone going to dare make that connection--that 4 years after 9/11, we still can't handle a predicted catastrophe, much less a terrorist attack? Does this make his rhetoric seem like, well, rhetoric?

Robert G. Kaiser: Sure it does. I think you have put your finger on Bush's biggest vulnerability now. He convinced the country he was the right leader for the "war on terror," and I don't think the country expected to see the sort of floundering we all watched after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. How can he win back the country's confidence now? Big job.


Ann Arbor, Mich.: Why is Bush's performance so often judged based on whether he wins or loses his political fights, and not on whether his solutions produced good results for America? The media always loses interest in his results and switches over to the political brawl that he has started (often passive-aggressively, e.g. calling any serious review of Katrina failures a "blame game").

Robert G. Kaiser: In my opinion this is a very good criticism, and fair, of the news media, and particularly the electronic media. As Post reporters and photographers have been trying to document for many days now, the crisis in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama is about human lives, not politics. We are very proud of the work these journalists have done, and I hope everyone makes some time each day to read and look at their stuff.


Seattle, Wash.: Why do the Bush advisors shield him from the reality all the rest of of see and manipulate his public encounters?

Robert G. Kaiser: Well, do we know for sure that they do this? I share your suspicion that they do, but we also know that Bush DOES read the newspapers, despite saying he doesn't, and I bet he watches some TV too. I think it's a fundamental point of principle in this White House never to let anyone else define "reality." If this requires spin that most people find unbelievable, so be it.

From a White House perspective, events where crowds heckle the president or dispute his realities are downers, and bad politics. So the White House avoids them. But I also think that most Americans see what you see, one big reason why the latest polls put Bush's approval rating at 40%.

When you read these polls, remember that Bill Clinton had an approval rating of more than 60% when he left office, after being impeached, after all the scandals. Bush's situation today is as bad as any president has faced since Nixon in the summer of 1974, I think. This doesn't mean he can't recover, he can. But he's in a deep hole today.

Here's a link to the latest Pew Center poll. I recommend it.

_______________________ Pew Poll: Two-In-Three Critical Of Bush's Relief Efforts.


Arlington, Va.: Do you think that the mayor and/or governor deserve any blame for the mess? Have hardly read anything about them with your newspaper, no surprise there...

Robert G. Kaiser: Those of you who want to use forums like this to take potshots at The Post (and you are welcome to do so) will have a lot more impact if you get your facts straight first. "Hardly read anything" about Mayor Nagin and Gov. Blanco in the Post? That only demonstrates that you are not reading the Post, which has reported extensively about both of them.


Bethesda, Md.: Do you see Bush's problems with the questioning of qualifications the FEMA heads have spreading to another appointees? When you add it with how they treated the military who said there were not enough troops to invade Iraq, it really sounds like qualifications are not important to this administration, only loyalty and lock-step agreement with administration policy. Do you see past appointee resumes being dusted off and given a second look by the Democrats, the press, etc...?

Robert G. Kaiser: Good question. I have a personal thing about ambassadors, who, in this administration, have been appointed in many, many cases because of their friendship with the president or their campaign contributions. We have a faceless corps of ambassadors all over Europe, whom few people have heard of, either in Washington or in the capitals where they serve. But Bush did not invent this sin; it goes back half a century or more.

Cronyism and politics have turned much of the American government into an amateur act, in my opinion. Again, this didn't start with Bush, it's part of a long tradition of treating Washington has a kind of alien planet where just about anyone is qualified to do any job. Michael Brown at FEMA embodies this tradition. It's a sad one.


Toronto, Ontario: Some have said Katrina will ultimately have more impact on reshaping America and its priorities than 9/11 did. Do you agree with this? Why?

Robert G. Kaiser: I have no idea. But it will have a huge impact, for many years to come. I was struck by Gene Robinson's powerful column in today's paper, which is featured on the front page of the site right now, and to which we will link here. Gene is on to something profound. Whether it will become an important theme, or be forgotten in a month or two I just cannot say.

I don't think official Washington has yet come to grips with the significance of just the cost of Katrina. We have watched Congress appropriate $60 billion already -- that's $60 billion that will be added to an already enormous budget deficit, and of course it is only the beginning of the cost of Katrina. The psychological and political impact will be much harder to measure, and both will take much longer to begin to register on us.

_______________________ Eugene Robinson: No Longer Invisible.


Tucson, Ariz.: Critics of Bush's response keep attacking him on the grounds that his response is to slow. I think they are just using any excuse to get at him. Case and point: many have criticized Bush saying that the National Guard was too slow in mobilizing even though the National Guard is solely under the jurisdiction of the governor. What is your view of the critics?

Robert G. Kaiser: I have a question for you: Are you proud of the way your government responded to this tragedy? Do you hope it will do just as well responding to the next great conflagration, whatever it may be?

Now I will take the liberty of answering for you: of course you're not. This was a sorry performance, by governments at all levels, from city to state to national. Personally I find the political sniping offensive, and largely irrelevant. Isn't a fact that we confronted a great national catastrophe here and just booted it? Please talk me out of this conclusion if you think it is wrong--I just don't think it is.


Southern Maryland: I'd like to know why people are so terribly critical of President Bush after 9/11 and the hurricane that hit New Orleans. You'd think people would realize HE WAS NOT TO BLAME FOR EITHER OF THOSE. No one has any control over hurricanes and to hear the nit-picky, back-stabbing criticism you'd think he caused the hurricane himself. Get a grip, folks.

As for 9/11, he inherited an 8-year mess from a Democrat who was fooling around with an intern instead of paying attention to prior warnings (i.e., bombings) from terrorists.

I know I could never be a politician because I'm far too thin-skinned and I'd answer the critics in a not-very-diplomatic tone.

Robert G. Kaiser: This is a fair point too. Katrina wasn't caused by a politician any more than 9/11 was.

But wait a minute, aren't you blaming Bill Clinton for 9/11? How fair is that?


Tyler, Tex.: I think that it is interesting that Karen Hughes is now being appointed as the Minister of Propaganda to put a spin on the Federal Response effort rather than answer the pertinent questions and seek the truth of their insensitivity and lack of response. Do you have an opinion on just what kind of role Karen will play other than this or if we will ever find out the truth about anything this administration has done?

Robert G. Kaiser: Let me say only that if The Washington Post can possibly do it, we will find out a lot of truth about what has happened in this administration. That is our biggest job.


Fresno, Calif.: Robert - I hate to ask a question on a boring subject while Katrina & its aftermath rage, but is Social Security reform dead for this term? In fact, will Bush even make a serious effort to push it? Thanks

Dave, Fresno

Robert G. Kaiser: Yes, dead. No he won't.


Washington, D.C.: Why is the President not acting more decisive and getting someone in charge of FEMA who can really do the job? I've never been a fan of Bush, but I think the thing that bothers me most about him, he is unable or unwilling to admit to a mistake. He's only human, he makes mistakes. What I would like to see is that he can learn from them. Right now I don't think he does learn or cares to learn for that matter.

Robert G. Kaiser: I have written here before that I expected Bush to pay a price some day for his failure ever to admit a mistake. I say this not for any political reason, but because of my experience over 62 years as a human being. Who among us likes people whom we see making mistakes but who refuse ever to acknowledge them? That's how bosses become unpopular, coaches become distrusted by their players, friends become ex-friends. On the other hand, I think we have all had the experience of watching someone who goofed up big time winning our sympathy by saying "Hey, I goofed up big time, and I'm really sorry."

I will leave it to psychiatrists and pundits to explain this trait in Bush, which baffles me. But I think this 40% approval rating may be one consequence of his stubborn refusal ever to admit a mistake.

Remember that moment in the debates with Kerry when a voter asked Bush to list some mistakes he had made as president? He couldn't come up with one. How strange was that?


Washington, D.C.: Dear Mr. Kaiser,

Thank you for your comment on the large numbers of ambassador posts that have been handed out to those friendly with the current administration (I often hear about "ranger level" fundraisers) instead of to those who are qualified. Working in Washington, I am shocked that a number of these appointees have no diplomatic experience, are often wealthy business owners that may have profited from the county and- in my mind the worst transgression- have never lived in that country or speak the language. These are our representatives to major allies. I know this wasn't invented by the President, but do you see this trend continuing along these lines or perhaps in the wake of seeing what happens when unqualified people are appointed, there may be more of a thought process?

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't predict the future, but I could provide a long list of Clinton ambassadors who qualify for exactly the description you provide here. This is an entrenched practice. It won't be easy to change it now.


Pensacola, Fla.: I would like to follow up on the question from Ann Arbor. It often seems that the media focuses more on the game of politics than the substance of policy that is driven by politics. Do you think that is fair?

Robert G. Kaiser: As I said to Ann Arbor, I do. We are a sporting culture. We love games. We love winners--and losers. It's a national weakness. And it's much easier than dealing with the complex grays of the real world.


Silver Spring, Md.: Do you think the negative political fallout for the Bush administration from Katrina will exceed that of 9/11?

Robert G. Kaiser: Hey, where were you after 9/11? The "political fallout" then was all positive, wasn't it? Bush's poll ratings soared; Americans rallied 'round him. This is quite the opposite.


Marietta, Ga.: How would you read Republican members of Congress reaction to the Hurricane efforts? are they cautious, nervous, or still solidly loyal to the President?

Robert G. Kaiser: Robert Novak, a Republican columnist with many good connections on the Hill, wrote yesterday of how nervous Republicans are. How could they not be? Which of course does not mean they will abandon loyalty to Bush. But naturally, they are scared.


Arlington, Va.: Just wanted to support your observation re: the importance of the articles that Gene Robinson has been writing this week. (The other Posties have done a great job too.)

I was humiliated, as an American, not only to have the world see the fumbling of our government but to have the world see the failings of our society. There is no excuse for the kind of poverty that the images we saw this week portrayed.

I hope The Post will encourage Mr. Robinson to write a bigger article--perhaps for Outlook--that lays out this issue in an even more pointed an detailed way. We need to be thinking about how our government will address poverty and what we, as individual citizens can do.

Thanks again for all the great Post stories this week.

Robert G. Kaiser: Can't resist posting this nice comment, but I promise to print one with critical sentiments if one shows up.


Fairfax, Va.: Isn't the failure of the government -- on ALL levels -- to respond adequately to Katrina more of an indictment of the institutions, rather than the people? I mean, I tend to think that the government would have been a bureaucratic mess in nearly any administration. This is not to say criticism is out of line, but perhaps it is misdirected at individuals rather than institutions?

Robert G. Kaiser: I have never met an institution that didn't consist of human beings. Have you?


St. Paul, Minn.: While it is still to early to really know this, it is my belief that historians will point to the Iraq War and Katrina as the beginning of the downfall of the U.S. as a world superpower. I feel our country has never been so vulnerable as it is right this minute.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for posting. I have no idea whether you are right. But I cringed at home this morning when I opened up this week's edition of The Economist, the British political magazine. Emblazoned on its cover are these words:

"The shaming of America."


New York, N.Y.: I can't imagine the Bush administration or Congress pushing for more tax cuts during this time of a national disaster. Do you think tax cuts, or eliminating the estate tax are even possible now?

Robert G. Kaiser: We'll learn something from the ultimate answer to this question, which I certainly cannot provide today. Personally I won't be surprised if tax cuts now disappear off the Republican agenda. But I can't predict that that will happen.


Arlington, Va.: It is true that the President nominates people to fill various posts in his administration, as in Mr. Brown heading FEMA. But the SENATE needs to approve them...there has been so little oversight of the various actions of this administration by the SENATE, in general. Do you see any of this changing?

Robert G. Kaiser: A very good point. "Congressional oversight" has lapsed in recent years; Congress is hardly the sort of watchdog you'd want to have at YOUR house.


To be somewhat fair to Bush. . .: While I'm not a fan of his (quite the opposite), I think stressing the racial aspects of the reaction is wrong. I don't believe Bush has a racial bone in his body, rather, his bias is against poor people regardless of race. This seems to be a product of breeding, witness his mother's comments.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for posting.


St. Louis, Mo.: Bob,

Yesterday, 11 House members (all Republicans) voted no for 51 billion dollar relief fund. Do you think these guys deserve to stay in Congress after their despicable act yesterday?

Robert G. Kaiser: Not my role to answer this question, but boy, it seems a little harsh to me. Did you read what they said? Their argument, as reported in The Post, was that this money is being shoveled to the Gulf Coast with too little thought and insufficient provisions for accountability for its spending.


Irvine, Calif.: Why is the entire focus of The Washington Post on the federal government's reaction to Katrina? Are we to understand that the state and city governments had nothing to do with the planning for and aftermath of the storm?

Robert G. Kaiser: Here's another critic who isn't reading the Post, but just assumes, I guess, that he/she knows what it is publishing.


Portland, Ore.: How long do you think the New Orleans/Katrina story will go on?

It seems to me that it is going to dog President Bush for the remainder of his term. I'm thinking there's still city draining, refugees returning, debates about rebuilding, then actual rebuilding all left to do.

Robert G. Kaiser: I think you are right.


Baltimore, Md.: You find it "strange" that Bush doesn't admit mistakes? Why should he when the national media incessantly does so for him, finding fault with everything he does? The mainstream media doesn't regard him as a president but as a pinata. He has consistently been portrayed as a dim-witted buffoon and has media has delighted on beating the heck out of him every day because he doesn't see the world as they do. So why should he admit mistakes?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for posting.


Berkeley, Calif.: The Post published an incorrect report that the La. Governor had not declared a state of emergency about a week after she had. A White House source was cited. Why didn't you check this? Do you know why the White House provided false info? Were they that clueless or that dishonest? I think The Post owes us some answers about its own work and the White House on this.

Robert G. Kaiser: This seems a fair point to me. I'm sitting here answering questions so can't immediately find out what our plans are, but I hope they include revisiting this matter for our readers' benefit.


Columbus, Ohio: It is my understanding that you have been employed by The Washington Post for decades, and yet you are only an associate editor. Since you are getting on in years, is there any chance you'll get a more reputable position soon?

Robert G. Kaiser: Not sure how to interpret this question, but for the record, I was The Post's managing editor from 1991 to 1998, and gave up that job to return to writing and reporting, which is where I began in 1963. I've had a great run at The Post, enjoying every one of the jobs I have held here. But Associate Editor may be the best one yet, because it is an honorific title that spares me responsibility for anything other than my own work.


College Park, Md.: Everyone in this forum is making me sick. Can't we all just recognize that the members of both parties are ineffective at dealing with any kind of serious problems. Neither party has been adequate at dealing with the looming situations our government faces (Medicare, SS, Iraq, border issues). Instead of this relentless partisan sniping at Bush and Democrats, why can't we put aside all of the loaded questions and make pols develop an actual plan we can come to a consensus on? That's it.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.


Bethesda, Md.: One thing that hasn't been touched on a lot yet, but which is in the promo for this chat, is the War in Iraq.

I think most Americans have hoped for some time that the administration has a coherent plan in Iraq and that there is at least some kind of effective command structure overseeing rebuilding efforts, etc. After the Katrina debacle, I can't help realizing that the same executive branch that brought us a FEMA that is completely incapable of carrying out its essential functions is also overseeing the Iraq rebuilding effort.

Should Katrina lead to a reassessment of what is going on in Iraq, and whether it is reasonable to hope that any positive objective might be achieved there, or are the two issues completely separate?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for posting this question. Iraq is temporarily, momentarily, off the screen, but it will be back, with a vengeance. To my mind this is Bush's biggest problem for the next three years. I can't see a happy ending in Iraq. We are going to lose more Americans, and I fear we are going to see more turmoil and violence inside Iraq. Of course I could be wrong, I have often been wrong in the past, and I'd love to be wrong about this. But until today the Iraq war has not gone well, as a few politicians have the courage to remind us--Sen. Hagel for example.


Middletown, Md.: Was Barbara Bush completely tone-deaf to the implications of her response to questions about the victims who had been moved to the Houston Astrodome? She seemed to say that for folks being housed in the Astrodome, it was a step up from their previous living situation even before the hurricane struck.

Robert G. Kaiser: I can't speak for Mrs. Bush, but like you I was struck by her comment.


Charlotte, N.C.: What happens if we lose 19 US soldiers in a firefight tomorrow in Iraq? It seems to me that this nation is at a point where it could really come unglued at any moment, with minimal prompting. David Brooks recently wrote in a rival paper that he sees a major political change coming. What are your thoughts?

Robert G. Kaiser: This is a good note on which to end this discussion. Thanks to all for the good questions.

David Brooks is a young (well, relatively young) conservative columnist for the NY Times. His fascinating piece, to which Charlotte refers, ran last Sunday. In it he predicted the end of small-government, low-tax Republican government in the near future. Unlike me, he is a paid pundit, and a pretty smart one. Maybe he'll be right.

For myself, I shy away from such predictions, but I do believe that a sea change is coming--without knowing which way the tide may go. When the cover of The Economist (a staunchly pro-American magazine) is "The shaming of America," we have a big problem. And we all know that we have a big problem, regardless of our personal politics. The pollsters like to ask if people think America is headed in the right direction, or is "off on the wrong track." I confidently predict that the "wrong track" number will sail upward in the weeks ahead.

Thanks again for a lively chat. I'll be back next week for daily discussions of the Roberts hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee.


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