Louisiana officials pushed back hard against the White House yesterday, sharply criticizing President Bush for offering a tentative and insufficient response to the obliteration of New Orleans and then trying to shift the blame to the state and local governments.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) accused Bush of failing to fund efforts to fortify the levee protecting New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina hit, and of failing to send troops, supplies and other assistance quickly enough in Katrina's aftermath. "Would the president please stop taking photo-ops, and please come and see what I'm trying to show him?" Landrieu asked on ABC's "This Week." She threatened to "punch" Bush or anyone else who criticizes the response of the local sheriffs, one day after administration officials blamed state and local authorities for missteps in relief and rescue efforts.
Aaron Broussard, president of decimated Jefferson Parish in Louisiana, broke down in tears on NBC's "Meet the Press" as he chided officials. "Nobody's coming to get us," Broussard said, his head sagging. "The secretary has promised. Everybody's promised. They've had press conferences. I'm sick of the press conferences. For God's sake, shut up and send us somebody."
In public statements and even more bluntly behind the scenes, Bush administration officials have questioned local efforts to rescue thousands of people who were stranded for days without food, water and shelter, resulting in death of an unknown number of Americans. The Bush administration says the death tolls will reach into the thousands by the time New Orleans is drained, and three top officials were dispatched to survey the region.
"All that is still occurring, and people are now reducing it to politics and shifting it to the blame game. It's sad that human tragedy is being reduced to politics," said Denise Bottcher, spokeswoman for Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco.
Bush is trying to undo what many Republicans described as considerable damage to the White House inflicted by Bush's crisis management. "Almost every Republican I have spoken with is disappointed" in Bush's performance, said William Kristol, a conservative columnist with close White House ties. "He is a strong president . . . but he has never really focused on the importance of good execution. I think that is true in many parts of his presidency."
As president, Bush typically has been loath to admit mistakes, and this situation is no different.
A senior White House aide said there was no reason for Bush to return to Washington to deal with the disaster before Wednesday, though he was told of the gravity of the situation in briefings late into the night on Monday. Bush cut short his working vacation at his ranch near Crawford, Tex., but spent Tuesday night there. The aide said Bush wanted to allow his Cabinet and staff time to get back to Washington and in place to brief him.
Democrats say Bush would have been better positioned to demand a speedier response if he were in Washington, or at least to offer Americans a symbolic show of his involvement by cutting short his time away from the White House.
One reason for the slow White House response, said a Republican who has been in contact with several officials, is that so many high-level officials and aides were on vacation. Vice President Cheney, for instance, was in Wyoming and did not return unil Thursday, and Nicolle Devenish, the president's top communications adviser, is getting married in Greece with a number of mid-level aides in attendance.
Bush's first speech to the nation has been widely criticized as unemotional and too bureaucratic in tone. In subsequent appearances, Bush seemed at times tentative and distracted -- and not always sure of the message he wanted to leave. On Friday, Bush said he was "looking forward to my trip" to see the storm wreckage only to say "I am not looking forward to this trip" when he landed. The senior aide said Bush wanted to accomplish one major goal with those initial speeches -- underscore "the enormity of the problem" and the government's plan to respond accordingly. Critics say he failed to reassure a distraught nation.
Late last week, Bush said he was unhappy with the overall response, but the aide made it clear he was most upset with the local plan -- not his own administration's efforts. Bush lost patience with local officials when he learned that thousands of people were sent to the New Orleans convention center for relief only to learn their was no assistance for victims there, the aide said, calling this the "tipping point." Bush infuriated Blanco and other local officials when he sought late Friday night to federalize the relief effort and seize control of National Guard and other operations. The governor refused, and tensions between the federal and local officials worsened.
"We're still fighting over authority," New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said over the weekend. "A bunch of people are the boss. The state and the federal government are doing a two-step dance."
Landrieu, echoing the concerns of others, said that "it's mind-boggling to everyone in Louisiana, including myself, why the president did not send forces earlier." Blanco commands the vast majority of the National Guard troops and should be questioned as to why she did not move more quickly, the senior aide responded.
The White House is moving on several fronts to repair Bush's image and streamline its response effort. Bush will return to Louisiana and Mississippi today.
With a number of African Americans accusing Bush of racial insensitivity, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew to the region to respond to critics. "Nobody, especially the president, would have left people unattended on the basis of race," she said. Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and other African American leaders were invited to the White House for a two-hour meeting Saturday in which top administration officials briefed participants on the hurricane response.
Watt said he was focused on rescue efforts, not politics, but observed: "I think there was the growing perception that folks were concerned and that it might have race implications" because African Americans were disproportionately represented among New Orleans residents unable to evacuate the city.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was also dispatched yesterday to the region, and the senior aide said Bush anticipates the greater military presence will vastly improve communications and allow for more timely decision-making.
Some Republicans close to the White House say FEMA Director Michael D. Brown is taking the brunt of blame-casting in internal administration conversations, though Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and others defended his performance yesterday. Under initial plans, Chertoff was going to oversee the relief effort from Washington while Brown was Bush's man on the ground. In an about-face, Chertoff has become Bush's top subordinate in the region.
Chertoff is in charge of operational briefings for Bush, which start early each morning and occur periodically throughout the day. White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. is coordinating the hurricane team, and Karl Rove, the president's top political adviser, has been intimately involved in meetings. Bush, who typically works a fairly set schedule, has been working longer hours, getting in earlier than his usual 7 a.m. start and working as late as 9 p.m., at least two hours past his normal quitting time.
Staff writer Spencer Hsu contributed to this report.