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Katrina Takes Measure of Bush Political Capital


In Washington, hearings on the government's response to Hurricane Katrina have started. Emergency aid is being appropriated, fingers being pointed. Some Democrats have called for the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, to be fired and President Bush has been criticized for a faltering early response to the hurricane. Even before Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the president was suffering the worst job approval ratings of his presidency. NPR's Mara Liasson examines where the president stands politically after a summer of bad news; from Iraq, rising gas prices and now this hurricane.

MARA LIASSON reporting:

Back in 2000 when he was running for president against Al Gore, George W. Bush talked about the challenge of natural disasters.

(Soundbite of speech)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: You know as governor, one of the things you have to deal with is catastrophe. I've got to pay the administration a compliment. James Lee Witt of FEMA has done a really good job of working with governors during times of crisis. It's time to test your mettle. It's the time to test your heart when you see people whose lives have been turned upside down.

LIASSON: Hurricane Katrina tested the president's mettle and it was widely found to be wanting.

Mr. WILLIAM KRISTOL (Editor, Weekly Standard): I think George Bush did a pretty bad job in managing the hurricane, especially in those first two or three days after the levees broke.

LIASSON: That's Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard. In Washington, Democrats are saying openly and aggressively the same thing that some Republicans will say privately: When faced with this disaster President Bush had trouble finding the right tone, something he had no trouble doing when he went to ground zero after the 9/11 attacks on New York City.

(Soundbite of speech)

Pres. BUSH: I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you and the people...

(Soundbite of cheering)

Pres. BUSH: ...and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.

(Soundbite of cheering)

LIASSON: In contrast after Katrina, President Bush appeared to be out of touch. On ABC's "Good Morning America" he seemed misinformed.

(Soundbite from "Good Morning America")

Pres. BUSH: I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees. They did anticipate a serious storm.

LIASSON: In fact, the breach of the levees was widely anticipated in numerous warnings and reports over decades. Of course, not all the problems with the hurricane response are being blamed on the president; every branch of government, from the city of New Orleans to the state of Louisiana to the Bush administration, has been criticized. In the latest Pew Poll, 67 percent believed the president could have done more to speed up relief efforts. In the latest Gallup Poll, 42 percent thought President Bush responded poorly to Katrina. Only 35 percent thought he responded well. But even before Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, high gasoline prices and bad news from Iraq had sent the president's job approval ratings to the low 40s; their lowest level ever, says Gallup's editor in chief, Frank Newport.

Mr. FRANK NEWPORT (Editor in Chief, Gallup): Prior to Katrina there was no question that the president was doing worse than almost all second-term presidents in the summer of the year after they had been re-elected. We did an analysis here at Gallup, the only president to do worse was Richard Nixon.

LIASSON: But even so, Bill Kristol thinks in the end, the president may be able to weather Katrina's political storm.

Mr. KRISTOL: People will hold him accountable as they should and be disappointed in him. Most of the Republicans I've talked to are disappointed in Bush, a little bit angry even, but they're not going to support Bush now. They haven't changed their mind about judicial appointments or about tax cuts. And so when those fights get re-engaged, the great majority will come back to rally behind the president.

LIASSON: So on bedrock ideological issues, like tax cuts and judges, Kristol does not expect Republican support for Mr. Bush to waver. But he is concerned about the president's ability to shore up support for his policies in Iraq and to convince Americans that the government is prepared to respond to a terrorist attack.

Mr. KRISTOL: The one set of issues where I think Bush is--not very good performance on Hurricane Katrina could affect things is issues where you're sort of putting confidence in his ability to execute, when you're putting confidence in his competence. I think that's taken a bit of a hit and that could affect Iraq and other foreign policy issues where people don't really have an ideological view necessarily. They just want the president to do it right, and now they're a little more nervous that he might not.

LIASSON: On other issues, the president's agenda has already been affected by the overwhelming fiscal demands of hurricane relief and the criticism that the administration shortchanged the hurricane's poorest victims. A Senate vote on eliminating the estate tax, which would benefit the wealthiest Americans, was postponed; so was a House bill calling for cuts in health care and education. There have been signals from the Hill that immigration reform may be delayed as well.

Republican pollster Bill McInturff says the president's legislative agenda is being reshaped by Katrina just like the coastline of Louisiana.

Mr. BILL McINTURFF (GOP Pollster): This is now a cycle where we are locking into the Supreme Court, Iraq and Hurricane Katrina and it's going to be very difficult to capture attention beyond those issues.

LIASSON: Capturing attention for issues beyond the urgent and immediate is a function of how much clout a president has. After he was re-elected last year, the president explained what that meant to him.

(Soundbite of speech)

Pres. BUSH: I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.

LIASSON: But now almost nine months into his second term, it's unclear how much political capital President Bush has left. George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University, says maybe Mr. Bush never had as much as he thought.

Professor GEORGE EDWARDS (Texas A&M University): Well, I think it's very low, but it was never high. I mean, I think he misinterpreted the election. When you win with less than 51 percent of the vote, which is the smallest percentage of any newly-elected president in more than half a century, when you have a 53 percent approval rating right after the election, the lowest of any of the last seven presidents, he's got some problems. He hasn't had much political capital to begin with.

LIASSON: Case in point, says Edwards, is the president's plan for a Social Security overhaul. Mr. Bush tried to rally the country to support his plan for partial privatization, but he failed. Bill McInturff says that result is supported by history.

Mr. McINTURFF: You know, you go back in history and you talk about presidential capital and you say, `How do we get big things done?' Big things get done through bipartisan majorities, by presidents who have job approvals in the mid to high 50s. A president with job approval in the mid-40s is going to have a hard time marshalling a very active agenda.

LIASSON: Big proactive things, such as transforming the Social Security system or the tax code or immigration law, may be a reach for this president now. But even with approval ratings in the low 40s, Mr. Bush still has an excellent chance to achieve one of his most important goals: changing the direction of the federal judiciary. With two Supreme Court vacancies to fill, President Bush may very well be able to change the balance of power on the high court, something that could have an enormous impact for generations to come. But on Iraq, the president's other major initiative, the reason events at home have made his task more difficult, forcing him to work even harder to convince Americans to stick with him even when the news from Baghdad is grim. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

STAMBERG: You can read the complete results of the Pew Center poll through a link at our Web site,

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.