Bush tries to restore voters' faith in his leadership

Polls show anger, loss of confidence in ability to manage terror attack

Analysis

Katrina's Wake

September 09, 2005|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - As hurricane cleanup continued yesterday, President Bush's drive to repair the political damage from his handling of the disaster entered its second week.

At the moment, there's no clear end in sight for either.

Bush's reputation as a leader has taken a direct hit in the aftermath of Katrina, two new national opinion surveys showed. Public anger over the government's slow response to the storm has undermined confidence in Bush's ability to manage a crisis and to protect the country from future disasters, such as another terrorist strike.

Even Republican strategists aren't sure how quickly or easily Bush will bounce back, with a potentially staggering death toll yet to be tallied and forecasts of high energy prices for the winter heating season.

"We have many difficult days ahead," Bush said in a nationally televised address. It was his second formal storm-related speech since returning to Washington from vacation Aug. 31 and the latest episode in the most intense damage-control campaign of his presidency.

The staging of his midafternoon appearance seemed designed to reflect Bush's strategy for rekindling faith in his leadership. Ten American flags, reminders that he is still the most powerful man in the world, formed a backdrop; but above the podium, where the presidential seal normally hangs, White House image-makers substituted a FEMA logo with a toll-free 800 number for storm victims, an apparent attempt to signal that it's not business-as-usual for Bush these days.

His carefully crafted remarks were a tacit response to some of the criticism he has been getting, such as insensitivity to the plight of the thousands of poor, black storm victims.

Addressing them as a group for the first time, Bush used personal terms, referring to them as "our citizens" and "our fellow Americans" and trying to assure them he understood their plight. The government, he said, was working around the clock to help and would stay "with you for the long haul."

Bush also spoke to a much wider audience, including, at least indirectly, his own conservative base, which has been shaken by the slow response to the disaster.

New polling underscores the damage Katrina has inflicted on Bush's already sagging job rating, which fell this summer to the lowest points since he came to office - largely as a result of higher gasoline prices and the rising U.S. deaths in Iraq.

The independent Pew Research Center reported yesterday that Americans are "highly critical of President Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina relief efforts," with disapproval of his performance now at the highest point of his presidency.

According to the Pew survey, completed Wednesday, two of every three adult Americans believe Bush could have done more to get relief efforts going quickly. By contrast, only about one in four Americans said he had done all he could.

The national poll, with an error margin of 3.5 percentage points, also revealed what Pew called an uncharacteristic drop in Bush's ratings among his core supporters: Republicans, conservatives, evangelical Christians and those with family incomes above $75,000.

In his latest remarks, Bush called for a national day of prayer next Friday. He spoke in unusually direct religious terms as he beseeched his listeners to pray to God "to keep us strong," as Americans "always have prayed in times of trial, with confidence in his purpose."

Over the past week, as the magnitude of the storm's devastation has sunk in and details emerged about those who apparently died as a result of bungled relief efforts, the public's judgment of Bush's crisis management has taken an abruptly negative turn - a particularly worrisome sign for a president whose response to the Sept. 11 attacks might have paved the way for his re-election last year.

A majority (58 percent) of Americans said they disapproved of Bush's handling of the Katrina crisis, according to a CBS News poll completed Tuesday and released yesterday. An earlier CBS poll, conducted two days after the storm struck, had shown the public strongly approving Bush's handling of the storm - by a lopsided four-to-one margin.

The CBS survey found that almost half the country has little or no confidence in Bush's ability to handle a crisis. In addition, when asked about the government's ability to protect the nation from future terrorist attacks, fully four in 10 Americans now say they have not very much confidence or none at all.

Bush's popularity has also dropped sharply among independent swing voters, a worrisome sign to Republican officeholders who, unlike the president, must face the voters in next year's midterm elections.

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