View Full Version : Living Too Much in the Bubble?

09-12-2005, 04:25 AM
A bungled initial response to Katrina exposed the perils of a rigid, insular White House. Inside Bush's plan to show he isn't isolated


Posted Sunday, Sep. 11, 2005
President Bush was seated in the White House Situation Room, watching military and disaster officials beaming in from the Gulf Coast on the giant screen of his secure video- teleconferencing system. It had been nearly a week since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, ripping gashes in the Superdome and swamping homes up to their eaves. Bush, more fidgety than usual, was hearing a jumble of conflicting reports about the number of refugees in the Convention Center and the whereabouts of two trucks and trailers loaded with water and food. Furious, he interrupted and glared at the camera transmitting his image back to Mississippi. "I know y'all are trying as hard as you can, but it ain't cuttin' it," the Commander in Chief barked. "I wanna know why. We gotta do better."

This was not so much a moment of executive command as one that betrayed Bush's growing sense that his presidency was taking a beating too. A TIME poll conducted last week shows how badly it has been wounded: his overall approval rating has dropped to 42%, his lowest mark since taking office. And while 36% of respondents said they were satisfied with his explanation of why the government was not able to provide relief to hurricane victims sooner, 57% said they were dissatisfied--an ominous result for a politician who banks on his image as a straight shooter.

Longtime Bush watchers say they are not shocked that he missed his moment--one of his most trusted confidants calls him "a better third- and fourth-quarter player," who focuses and delivers when he sees the stakes. What surprised them was that he still appeared to be stutter-stepping in the second week of the crisis, struggling to make up for past lapses instead of taking control with a grand gesture. Just as Katrina exposed the lurking problems of race and poverty, it also revealed the limitations of Bush's rigid, top-down approach to the presidency. "The extremely highly centralized control of the government--the engine of Bush's success--failed him this time," a key adviser said.

The missteps on Katrina came at a crucial moment in Bush's second term, when his top legislative priority at home, Social Security reform, was already on life support and the war in Iraq was becoming a mounting economic and political burden. The Administration that had been determined to defy history and ward off the second-term curse--and early lame-duck status--by controlling the agenda and seizing opportunities appears increasingly at the mercy of events, at home and abroad.

And as if the West Wing were suddenly snakebit, his franchise player, senior adviser and deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove, was on the disabled list for part of last week, working from home after being briefly hospitalized with painful kidney stones.

Bush has always said the Presidency is about doing big things, and a friend who chatted with him one evening in July said he seemed to be craving a fresh mission even though the one he has pursued in Iraq is far from being on a steady footing. "He was looking for the next really important thing to do," the friend said. "You could hear him almost sorting it out to himself. He just sort of figured it would come."

But when it did, he did not immediately show that he sensed its magnitude. On the Monday that Hurricane Katrina landed and the Crescent City began drowning, Bush was joshing with Senator John McCain on the tarmac of an Air Force base in Arizona, posing with a melting birthday cake. Like a scene out of a Michael Moore mockumentary, he was heading into a long-planned Medicare round table at a local country club, joking that he had "spiced up" his entourage by bringing the First Lady, then noting to the audience that he had phoned Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff from Air Force One. "I said, 'Are you working with the Governor?'" Bush recounted. "He said, 'You bet we are.'" But the President was not talking about the killer storm. He was talking about immigration, and the Governor was Arizona's.

The day after Katrina's landfall, Bush awoke in San Diego and just after 5 a.m. local time talked to an aide about the seriousness of the storm, then convened an emergency conference call of his top staff. He was scheduled to spend a few more nights at the ranch, but an aide said he blurted out, "We're going back." Bush also said he wanted Cabinet members recalled from vacations. At a Cabinet meeting last week, according to a participant, Bush said he knew he had "a big problem to solve."

From tarmac to Cabinet room, the President's performance was uneven at the very least, and associates say that can be explained by several factors. Some are specific to his CEO style, others endemic to second terms, but all of them came together in early September much like Katrina itself. The first was his elongated summer vacation: Bush upped to nearly five weeks his traditional month of working vacation at the Crawford ranch, a vacuum that always alarmed his aides because it gave others an opening for capturing the news agenda. While the staff agonized about whether he should try to head off mounting criticism of the Iraq war by meeting a second time with Cindy Sheehan to discuss the death of her soldier son, Bush rejected the idea, saying part of the job is to expect protesters wherever he goes and he needs to "go on with my life, to keep a balanced life."

In addition, former aides say there has always been enormous pressure on White House officials to take only the most vital decisions to Bush and let the bureaucracy deal with everything else. Bush does not appear to tap sources deep inside his government for information, the way his father or Bill Clinton did, preferring to get reports through channels. A highly screened information chain is fine when everything is going well, but in a crisis it can hinder. Louisiana officials say it took hours for Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco to reach Bush (although when she did, he talked to her soothingly, according to White House officials). "His inner circle takes pride in being able to tell him 'everything is under control,' when in this case it was not," said a former aide. "The whole idea that you have to only burden him with things 'that rise to his level' bit them this time."

A related factor, aides and outside allies concede, is what many of them see as the President's increasing isolation. Bush's bubble has grown more hermetic in the second term, they say, with fewer people willing or able to bring him bad news--or tell him when he's wrong. Bush has never been adroit about this. A youngish aide who is a Bush favorite described the perils of correcting the boss. "The first time I told him he was wrong, he started yelling at me," the aide recalled about a session during the first term. "Then I showed him where he was wrong, and he said, 'All right. I understand. Good job.' He patted me on the shoulder. I went and had dry heaves in the bathroom."

But as the Bush era begins to wane, some remaining aides lack the chops to set him right when he is off course. Several of his closest advisers--including Condoleezza Rice, Alberto Gonzales and Karen Hughes--have left the West Wing for Cabinet posts or jobs in other agencies. His chief of staff, Andrew Card, has never been mistaken for James Baker, the man who made a minor career out of setting Bush's father right. And Bush has filled a number of lesser spots around the government with political hacks and patronage candidates--most embarrassingly Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), who was yanked from on-site supervision of Katrina on Friday.

"Katrina has shown the incredible weakness of the notion that you can have weak players in key spots because the only people who matter are in the White House," said a lobbyist who is tight with the Administration. "You can't have a Mike Brown at FEMA unless you can guarantee that there isn't going to be a catastrophe."

The result is a kind of echo chamber in which good news can prevail over bad--even when there is a surfeit of evidence to the contrary. For example, a source tells TIME that four days after Katrina struck, Bush himself briefed his father and former President Clinton in a way that left too rosy an impression of the progress made. "It bore no resemblance to what was actually happening," said someone familiar with the presentation.

Finally, if the Bush team initially missed the significance of a city with a majority of black citizens in peril, it may be because he has organized his presidency around a different segment of the population. Bush has governed largely from the right after winning the election decisively with his people on his issues, with few concessions to the center. Bush said at his re-election victory celebration that the new term would be "a new opportunity to reach out to the whole nation"--a pledge that now carries fresh urgency.

By late last week, Administration aides were describing a three-part comeback plan. The first: Spend freely, and worry about the tab and the consequences later. "Nothing can salve the wounds like money," said an official who helped develop the strategy. "You'll see a much more aggressively engaged President, traveling to the Gulf Coast a lot and sending a lot of people down there."

The second tactic could be summed up as, Don't look back. The White House has sent delegates to meetings in Washington of outside Republican groups who have plans to blame the Democrats and state and local officials. In the meantime, it has no plans to push for a full-scale inquiry like the 9/11 commission, which Bush bitterly opposed until the pressure from Congress and surviving families made resistance futile. Congressional Democrats have said they are unwilling to settle for anything less than an outside panel, but White House officials said they do not intend to give in, and will portray Democrats as politicking if they do not accept a bipartisan panel proposed by Republican congressional leaders. Ken Mehlman, the party's chairman and Bush's campaign manager last year, told TIME that viewers at home will think it's "kind of ghoulish, the extent to which you've got political leaders saying not 'Let's help the people in need' but making snide comments about vacations."

The third move: Develop a new set of goals to announce after Katrina fades. Advisers are proceeding with plans to gin up base-conservative voters for next year's congressional midterm elections with a platform that probably will be focused around tax reform. Because Bush will need a dynamic salesman to make sure that initiative goes better than his Social Security proposal, advisers tell TIME there is once again talk of replacing Treasury Secretary John Snow. There are no plans to delay tax cuts to pay for the New Orleans reconstruction or the Iraq war, and Bush is likely to follow through on his vow to veto anticipated congressional approval of increased federal funding for embryonic-stem-cell research.

The Katrina recovery plan, meanwhile, is expected to evolve. "Where's the Cathedral speech?" a friend asked in frustration a dozen days after Katrina hit, referring to Bush's address at the Washington National Cathedral on Sept. 14, 2001, when he asked "almighty God to watch over our nation and grant us patience and resolve in all that is to come."

It's coming, Bush's aides promise. And so are other big gestures. Aides say he is waiting until demonstrable progress is being made in the recovery of bodies and the delivery of checks. The solemn address is likely to link Katrina to the challenge of 9/11, as Bush has already started doing, and deliver his plan to deal with the aftermath and his reasons for being optimistic about the future of the Gulf Coast. In the meantime, Bush went before cameras to declare this Friday a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance for the victims of Katrina. And Republicans are also buzzing about the possibility that the White House will name a hurricane czar like Rudy Giuliani or Colin Powell, and announce a Marshall Plan--style recovery package, so that the nation can see the breadth of the government's overall commitment rather than have it dribble out piecemeal. Sources tell TIME that one idea being strongly considered is the creation of a body similar to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which is what the New York state and city governments did to oversee the rebuilding of ground zero. The White House has begun talking to possible candidates to lead the effort, the sources say.

Dan Bartlett, counselor to the President, contends that the public will judge Bush on the future, not the past. "They want to know what happened," he said. "But they're more interested in how we're helping these people get back on their feet." Nonetheless, Bush, whose stump patter often includes a paean to maternal wisdom, is learning the hard way a lesson any mother could have imparted: you have only one chance to make a first impression. --With reporting by Perry Bacon Jr., Timothy J. Burger, Massimo Calabresi, James Carney, Matthew Cooper and Karen Tumulty / Washington

TIMEPOLL FOR BUSH, THE STORM AFTER THE STORM President Bush is losing support, even among Republicans... President Bush's overall job performance: •Disapprove: 52% •Approve: 42%

"Approve" percentages, by party affiliation: •Republican 91% -- Jan. 12-13 •Republican 81% -- Sept. 7-8 •Democrat 25% -- Jan. 12-13 •Democrat 13% -- Sept. 7-8 •Independent 46% -- Jan. 12-13 •Independent 36% -- Sept. 7-8

... and his overall standing is down on issues ranging from Iraq to gas prices

Views on President Bush's handling of ...

...the situation in Iraq Approve 39% Disapprove 57%

... the economy Approve 40% Disapprove 55%

... the war on terrorism Approve 46% Disapprove 48%

How much can a President do to keep gas prices down?

•A great deal/some 74% •Not much/nothing 23%

How much has President Bush done to keep gas prices down?

•A great deal/some 27% •Not much/nothing 69%

There's plenty of blame to go around, and some see race as a factor ...

Who bears responsibility for what went wrong with the relief effort after the hurricane? Percentage assigning a great deal or some responsibility to: •President Bush 61% •Federal agencies 70% •State, local officials 73% •People hit by hurricane 57%

Do you think the race or the low income level of many of the victims slowed government relief efforts?

Total 37% Yes 60% No 3% Don't know

Blacks 73% Yes 25% No 2% Don't know

... and most people want to pay for rebuilding by scaling back in Iraq

Should the destroyed areas of New Orleans be rebuilt, even though they could flood again? Yes 63% No 29%

The relief and rebuilding efforts will cost tens of billions of dollars. To pay for it, do you favor ... ... increasing the federal deficit? 30% Yes ... raising taxes temporarily? 35% Yes ... reinstating estate taxes on the wealthy? 44% Yes ... cutting other government programs? 45% Yes ... cutting back spending in Iraq? 61% Yes

This TIME poll was conducted by telephone Sept. 7-8 among 1,000 adult Americans by SRBI Public Affairs. Areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina (less than 1.5%of the U.S. population) are underrepresented. The margin of error for the entire sample is 3 percentage points. The margin of error is higher for subgroups

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