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As White House Anxiety Grows, Bush Tries to Quell Political Crisis
As White House Anxiety Grows, Bush Tries to Quell Political Crisis
By ELISABETH BUMILLER and ADAM NAGOURNEY
Published: September 4, 2005
WASHINGTON, Sept. 3 - Faced with one of the worst political crises of his administration, President Bush abruptly overhauled his September schedule on Saturday as the White House scrambled to gain control of a situation that Republicans said threatened to undermine Mr. Bush's second-term agenda and the party's long-term ambitions.
President Bush delivered his weekly radio address from the Rose Garden of the White House on Saturday.
In a sign of the mounting anxiety at the White House, Mr. Bush made a rare Saturday appearance in the Rose Garden before live television cameras to announce that he was dispatching additional active-duty troops to the Gulf Coast. He struck a more somber tone than he had at times on Friday during a daylong tour of the disaster region, when he had joked at the airport in New Orleans about the fun he had had in his younger days in Houston. His demeanor on Saturday was similar to that of his most somber speeches after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"The magnitude of responding to a crisis over a disaster area that is larger than the size of Great Britain has created tremendous problems that have strained state and local capabilities," said Mr. Bush, slightly exaggerating the stricken land area. "The result is that many of our citizens simply are not getting the help they need, especially in New Orleans. And that is unacceptable."
The president was flanked by his high military and emergency command: Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
As Mr. Bush spoke, Vice President Dick Cheney and Karl Rove, the president's senior political adviser, listened on the sidelines, as did Dan Bartlett, the counselor to the president and Mr. Bush's overseer of communications strategy. Their presence underscored how seriously the White House is reacting to the political crisis it faces.
"Where our response is not working, we'll make it right," Mr. Bush said, as Mr. Bartlett, with a script in his hand, followed closely.
His speech came as analysts and some Republicans warned that the White House's response to the crisis in New Orleans, which has been widely seen as slow and ineffectual, could further undermine Mr. Bush's authority at a time when he was already under fire, endangering his Congressional agenda.
Mr. Chertoff said Saturday: "Not an hour goes by that we do not spend a lot of time thinking about the people who are actively suffering. The United States, as the president has said, is going to move heaven and earth to rescue, feed, shelter" victims of the storm.
The White House said Mr. Bush would return to Louisiana and Mississippi on Monday, scrapping his plans for a Labor Day address in Maryland. The rest of Mr. Bush's schedule next week was in flux.
The White House also postponed a major visit to Washington next week by President Hu Jintao of China. In a statement issued on Saturday, the White House said both Mr. Hu and Mr. Bush had agreed that "in the present circumstances, it was best not to have" the meeting, which would have demanded much of the president's attention over the next days on growing difficulties between the United States and China over trade frictions, North Korea's nuclear program and China's military buildup.
The last-minute overhaul of the president's plans reflected what analysts and some Republicans said was a long-term threat to Mr. Bush's presidency created by the perception that the White House had failed to respond to the crisis. Several said the political fallout over the hurricane could complicate a second-term agenda that includes major changes to Social Security, the tax code and the immigration system.
"This is very much going to divert the agenda," said Tom Rath, a New Hampshire Republican with ties to the White House. "Some of this is momentary. I think the Bush capital will be rapidly replenished if they begin to respond here."
Donald P. Green, a professor of political science at Yale University, said: "The possibility for very serious damage to the administration exists. The unmistakable conclusion one would draw from this was this was a massive administration failure."
And Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, urged Mr. Bush to quickly propose a rebuilding plan for New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast, arguing that an ambitious gesture could restore his power in Congress.
"If it's done right, it adds energy to the rest of his agenda," Mr. Gingrich said. "If it's done wrong, it swamps the rest of his agenda."
The silence of many prominent Democrats reflects their conclusion that the president is on treacherous political ground and that attacking him would permit the White House to dismiss the criticism as partisan politics-as-usual, a senior Democratic aide said.
Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, disputed the notion that Mr. Bush's long-term political viability was endangered and said Saturday that he was confident the administration would be able to push ahead successfully with its second-term agenda. "There are a number of priorities, and we will address all of them," he said.
For all the enormity of the destruction and the lingering uncertainty about how many years it will take to "rebuild the great city of New Orleans," as Mr. Bush said in his remarks on Saturday, some Republicans suggested that the impact could prove fleeting in this age of fast-moving events, and that Mr. Bush's visit to the region on Friday had helped some in addressing concerns about his response.
"Next Tuesday the Roberts hearings start, and that's going to occupy a significant part of the daily coverage," said Richard N. Bond, a former Republican chairman, referring to the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Judge John G. Roberts Jr.
But others said the damage could prove enduring, and they warned that the inevitable battery of official investigations into what went wrong could further erode support for the war in Iraq if it turned out that the deployment of National Guard units to Iraq had contributed to the slow response. They said any thought that memories of New Orleans will fade would be checked by gas prices that spiked as Louisiana refineries shut down, particularly given that there was already evidence that rising gas prices were hurting Mr. Bush's political standing.
Beyond that, some Republicans said the perception among some blacks that the White House had been slow to respond because so many victims were poor and African-American undercut what had been one of the primary initiatives of the new Republican chairman, Ken Mehlman: making an explicit appeal for support among black voters, a constituency that has traditionally been overwhelmingly Democratic.
"Given the racial component of this, and given the current political environment, there certainly seems to be a high level of risk to this story," said a Republican Party official, who, citing the concern among party officials about the criticism, would only discuss the question on the condition of not being identified.
But Mr. Bush, reflecting concern within the White House about the president's standing among blacks, notably said in his radio address that "we have a responsibility to our brothers and sisters all along the Gulf Coast, and we will not rest until we get this right and the job is done."
Both Republicans and Democrats noted that the reaction to the crisis has been nothing like what happened after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when both parties joined in a bipartisan show of unity in the face of a clear and identifiable outside threat.
Hurricane Katrina struck at a time, they said, when Mr. Bush was already in a weakened state, with his approval rating in many national polls at the lowest level of his presidency and his political capital in Washington diminishing.
The shifting dynamics on Capitol Hill was clear as Congress returned to Washington to allocate billions of dollars for the relief effort. Congressional leaders suggested that the White House needed to reconsider its legislative agenda. "This is not going to help Social Security," said Representative Rahm Emanuel, Democrat of Illinois. "And it was already on its last legs."
Representative Roy Blunt of Missouri, the Republican whip, said it would be a mistake to abandon efforts to reduce the estate tax, arguing that was precisely what the economy needed to grow. But he said he thought the White House might reconsider what it wanted this fall.
"I think the administration needs to be thinking about what their agenda is for the fall," he said. "And I'm sure there will be some re-evaluation."