Critics See a White House Failure to Communicate

Times Staff Writers

Throughout his presidency, George W. Bush has been admired for his ability to set clear goals and doggedly follow a path to achieve them.

But Bush and his White House often seem to struggle when pressed to react to unexpected events, a difficulty highlighted Wednesday by the continuing furor over Vice President Dick Cheney’s hunting accident and a congressional committee’s sharply critical report about the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

“There are maybe three or four things [Bush] really cares about, and on those things he will be clear, decisive and maybe even ruthless,” said Donald F. Kettl, an expert on government administration at the University of Pennsylvania.


But Bush and his aides “are not very good at ... quick reaction, on-the-fly decision-making,” Kettl said.

The Cheney shooting and the Katrina response have raised tough questions about what the president knows, when he knows it and how the White House shares information with elected officials and the public.

The hunting imbroglio has sparked a related question about Bush’s management style: whether he has provided the vice president too much autonomy in an administration in which Cheney has wielded as much influence as any second in command.

White House counselor Dan Bartlett rejected the suggestion that the two controversies pointed to communication failures among Bush and his aides. “That’s just over-interpreting,” he said.

Yet other observers, in both parties, maintained the incidents underscored concerns about Bush’s willingness and capacity to react to unanticipated challenges.

“If the buck stops with you, you are the person who has to take charge,” said Leon E. Panetta, a White House chief of staff under President Clinton. “I get the impression in this White House that the buck sometimes stops everywhere else but [with] the president.... Frankly, that mentality leads to nothing but trouble.”

Some senior Republicans, including top officials from previous GOP administrations, privately said they shared Panetta’s views.

One GOP fundraiser close to the White House said he thought the administration’s response to the news that Cheney had mistakenly shot a fellow hunter Saturday so closely replicated the Katrina experience that he wondered, “Is this a bad dream we are seeing again?”

“There is a pattern here,” said the fundraiser, who requested anonymity when discussing the administration’s workings.

For Bush, the Cheney and Katrina issues jab at exposed political nerves.

The charge that the White House waited too long to release information about the hunting accident came as polls found that the percentage of Americans who considered Bush trustworthy had declined since his first term.

Likewise, the percentage of Americans who said they considered Bush a strong leader had fallen before Wednesday’s report by a House special investigating committee criticized the administration’s response to Katrina.

“All of this intensifies existing concerns that the public has about this administration,” said Andy Kohut, executive director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, a nonpartisan polling organization.

From his initial campaign for Texas governor in 1994, Bush has excelled at establishing and adhering to long-term plans. He is rigorous about sustaining a message or limiting his legislative agenda to a few priorities. But that laser-like focus can sometimes leave the administration unable to quickly recognize the significance of events that don’t fit into their blueprint, critics say.

“That’s just not how they think,” said Ron Klain, a former Clinton administration aide.

White House aides said Bush could be an aggressive and skeptical questioner, especially on issues about which he cared passionately.

But the question of whether the president receives a wide enough range of information has persisted for years -- most notably in the administration’s conclusion before invading Iraq that leader Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

In a little-noticed remark in November, national security advisor Stephen Hadley conceded that there might have been flaws in the information flow to the Oval Office, preventing Bush from hearing that many intelligence experts disagreed about Hussein’s arsenal.

“One of the things we’ve all learned from that is that it is important [to] ... make sure that dissenting opinions also are given visibility,” Hadley told reporters.

The House report on the Katrina response zeroed in on another aspect of the White House’s operation. The panel used unusually harsh language in charging that, from Bush on down, officials failed to synthesize information about the hurricane or recognize its magnitude.

The report, issued by Republicans, also faulted Bush for reacting to the tragedy too passively, concluding that “earlier presidential involvement might have resulted in a more effective response.”

In a much smaller way, the Cheney accident raised similar questions about Bush’s approach to obtaining information.

On Monday, White House officials said that when Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. informed Bush about the shooting Saturday night, he did not know the vice president had pulled the trigger. Bush did not learn of Cheney’s involvement until later that night, when senior political advisor Karl Rove informed him after talking to the owner of the ranch where the accident occurred, White House officials said.

Several observers said they found it difficult to understand how Card or the president could have learned about the accident without immediately asking who had fired the shot.

The incident has also revived the debate about the degree of Cheney’s independence in the administration. Cheney’s office did not confirm the shooting until Sunday, after his host on the ranch, with his agreement, informed a local newspaper.

In an interview Wednesday with Fox News, Cheney said White House communications officials encouraged him “to get the story out,” but deferred to him on how to release the story.

That follows the pattern established since Bush took office in 2001, said one former senior administration official who closely observed the relationship between the presidential and vice presidential staffs.

“The vice president’s office does indeed operate with a significant degree of autonomy,” said the former official, who requested anonymity when discussing internal White House relations. “Unless the vice president is helping the president to deliver a message [on policy], it is really the VP’s office that decides what they want to do when.”

That leeway isn’t unique.

William Kristol, the chief of staff for Vice President Dan Quayle under President George H.W. Bush, said Quayle did not give the White House advance notice about the most controversial speech of his tenure: the address in which he accused the television show “Murphy Brown” of glamorizing out-of-wedlock birth.

Still, Cheney’s freedom of action appears greater than his predecessors.

In his interview with Fox News, Cheney said he did not talk directly with Card about the shooting until Sunday or with Bush until Monday.

“Having given him that much rope” throughout Bush’s presidency, the White House found “it hard to rein him in under these circumstances,” Kettl said.