Opportunity or Disaster for Battered Bush

Times Staff Writers

Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast this week just as President Bush’s public approval rating hit an all-time low. How he handles the aftermath of the monster storm could, in the short term, burnish the president’s leadership image at a time when some problems uppermost in voters’ minds -- including violence in Iraq and high gasoline prices -- seem unsolvable.

But public impatience with the pace of recovery or painful economic fallout from the storm that spreads across the country also loom as potential political menace.

Bush cut short his monthlong vacation in Texas on Wednesday and flew back to Washington, swooping low over the devastated area in Air Force One before meeting with his Cabinet to coordinate relief operations. Making comments from the Rose Garden, he told the American people that “we are dealing with one of the worst national disasters in our nation’s history,” then recited a long list of government responses including troop deployments and marshaling of equipment, food and supplies.

Bush also scheduled a rare live interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America” this morning to discuss the disaster.


Although these actions may provide favorable images of the president, the scope of the destruction poses enormous political risks for Bush and his party, political strategists and analysts cautioned.

Voters might become angry at Bush and GOP leaders if the recovery efforts falter, or the disruption prompts a nationwide recession, or if complaints from some Gulf Coast officials that the federal government underfunded the New Orleans levee system gain credence.

Any of those outcomes could further weaken Bush’s popularity, making it harder for him to push an ambitious second-term agenda through an increasingly reluctant Congress, as well as deepening Republican concerns about the 2006 elections.

The conservative Manchester Union Leader of New Hampshire has already criticized Bush for giving a speech about Iraq on Tuesday in San Diego, even as the death toll mounted from Hurricane Katrina.

“The cool, confident, intuitive leadership Bush exhibited in his first term ... has vanished,” the paper said in an editorial Wednesday. But initially, at least, Katrina changed the topic of political conversation across the nation.

The drama unfolding in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, where families are struggling to survive after losing everything, displaced stories about the failure of Iraqi Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis to agree on a constitution.

Disaster reports also shifted the focus from antiwar protests inspired by the vigil outside Bush’s Texas ranch by Cindy Sheehan, whose son died fighting in Iraq.

Stories about the shutdown of Gulf Coast refineries gave a new twist to the surge in gas prices.

All that is a relief for an administration that has watched public confidence in the White House erode.

“It gives us cover,” said one House Republican strategist, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the disaster. “Now everything is going to be about putting together a relief package quickly.”

“I think it helps [Bush] quite a bit,” said professor Richard Sylves, a political scientist at the University of Delaware who has compiled data about U.S. presidents’ responses to natural disasters and their consequences.

“It is usually the case with large-scale disasters that it centralizes power in the presidency and improves the president’s ratings in public opinion, particularly if he is seen as rallying the troops,” Sylves said.

Bush’s poll numbers have hit all-time lows for his presidency in several recent public opinion surveys, dragged down by mounting casualties in Iraq and soaring gasoline prices.

The most recent of those surveys, a Washington Post-NBC News poll released Tuesday, found Bush’s job approval rating at 45%, his lowest ever in that survey, with 53% disapproving of how Bush is handling his job.

The president’s approval rating was only 40% in a Gallup Poll last week, a new low for that survey, with 56% expressing disapproval.

Hurricane Katrina may provide a symbolic and inspiring moment for the president, who is expected to tour the area, perhaps before week’s end. It was by visiting ground zero in New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that Bush created the defining public moment of his presidency for millions of voters.

Standing beside an American flag as firefighters dug through the rubble of the World Trade Center, the president vowed that the perpetrators of the attack would hear from the United States, and he galvanized the American people for a global fight against terrorism.

The moment, Sylves said, “was a major symbolic statement for the president and created a tremendous confidence in the president’s ability to respond to the attack.”

While Hurricane Katrina may provide a similar opportunity, “the problem,” Sylves said, “is it is possible to get it wrong” -- to fail to respond quickly enough or efficiently enough.

That is what happened to the president’s father, George H.W. Bush, in August 1992, when his administration was criticized for failing to respond quickly enough to the devastation in Florida from Hurricane Andrew.

The elder Bush saw his support in Florida drop, and he narrowly captured the state in the presidential election that year, which he lost to Bill Clinton.

The lesson was not lost on the younger Bush, who responded vigorously to four hurricanes that hit Florida in 2004, in the midst of his campaign for reelection.

The president made several visits to storm-damaged areas, handing out food and water to victims and reviewing federal relief efforts.

He captured Florida by 300,000 votes in the election.

In another risk, the administration and Congress face potential voter disenchantment over handling of disaster preparedness and efforts before the storm to improve the levee system around New Orleans. Criticism already was rising.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported Wednesday that Gulf Coast officials have warned for years that a direct hit by a Category 4 hurricane could overwhelm the levees that protect the city from flooding.

One Senate source familiar with the issue said that the administration had not fully met the Army Corps of Engineers’ budgetary requests for the last five years for levee maintenance around New Orleans.

The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the issue, said that while Louisiana’s congressional delegation had fought for full funding, the administration had slashed the requests.

On its website, the Army Corps of Engineers details the gap between what it says it needs for levee maintenance, what the administration requested and what Congress ultimately approved for fiscal year 2005.

The administration’s request was $3.9 million. The congressional authorization was $5.5 million, which the corps website says was insufficient.

Keith Ashdown of the congressional watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense said that Katrina would pose “a huge liability, not just for the president, but for all the agencies involved,” if the aftermath “isn’t handled perfectly.”

After all, he said, “mayors lost their jobs over mishandling snowstorms.”

Times staff writers Richard Simon and Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.