Friday, September 02, 2005

Bush faces new challenge amid flood of bad news


Bush faces new challenge amid flood of bad news

By John Whitesides, Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The devastation of Hurricane Katrina is a dangerous political challenge for President George W. Bush even as he grapples with a string of bad news on the Iraq war, soaring gas prices and slumping approval ratings.

The widespread destruction on the Gulf Coast, one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, threatens to hit all Americans in the pocketbook by wreaking havoc on gas prices and the U.S. economy.

The result, analysts say, could be new questions about Bush's leadership and priorities, particularly his decisions to push for big tax cuts and pour billions of dollars into an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq.

"This is a supreme test of Bush's leadership at a time when resources are thin and his approval ratings are perilously low," pollster John Zogby said.

The hurricane's aftermath also could be more bad news for Republicans already worried about the political fallout in the 2006 congressional elections from the Iraq war. Republicans counting on domestic issues to trump Iraq in the minds of voters could find little solace there.

"The U.S. economy in the hurricane's aftermath is going to be a lot more important to a lot more voters than Iraq, no matter how well or poorly it's going over there," said California-based Republican consultant Dan Schnur.

"If the situation in Iraq has not improved, and if the hurricane causes an economic downturn, then Republican candidates have something to worry about," Schnur said.

Bush cut short a month-long vacation by two days to return to Washington on Wednesday, swooping low over the flooded coast for a first-hand view on the way back. He then headed a meeting of emergency officials and made a short public statement from the White House Rose Garden.

The New York Times, in an editorial on Thursday, called his statement "one of the worst speeches of his life."

On Thursday Bush called Katrina a temporary setback for the economy and appeared in public with former Presidents George Bush, his father, and Bill Clinton. He asked them to head a drive for disaster relief similar to the one they conducted after the Asian tsunami.

Some Democrats were quick to attack Bush for a feeble and late response, and drew links between the administration's focus on Iraq while domestic priorities like flood prevention were starved for funds.

"We are watching this devastation unfold on our televisions for days and you have to ask: where is the federal government?" Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey said. "We should have had a significant amount of troops and supplies there on the ground Monday."

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, noting gas prices were rocketing past $3 a gallon in many parts of the country, said everyday Americans had made sacrifices while Bush's "pals in big oil" reaped record profits.

"While he's asking ordinary Americans to do more, he ought to show some real leadership and call on his friends in Big Oil to join in the sacrifice and stop gouging American families at the gas pump," Dean said in a statement.

Critics asked why there were not better plans for emergency disaster relief and why decades of repeated warnings about the potential for disaster on the levees were ignored. They accused the administration of diverting funds for maintenance of the levee system to homeland security programs and the Iraq war.

"Sacrifices may be necessary to make sure that all these things happen in an orderly, efficient way. But this administration has never been one to counsel sacrifice," The New York Times said.

Bush brushed off the charges and said this was no time for politics.

"What we need to do as a nation is come together to solve the problem and not play politics, and there will be ample time for politics," Bush said in an ABC television interview.

Bush, criticized as slow to respond in the hours after the September 11 attacks, later won plaudits for his leadership, including his appearance with a bullhorn in the rubble of New York's World Trade Center to speak to rescue workers. He plans a visit to the devastated hurricane region on Friday.

"It's time for symbolic gestures," Zogby said. "The president is going to have to do a lot more than a 25-minute flyover."

Comparing his responses to the September 11 attacks and to the hurricane, the conservative New Hampshire Union Leader in Manchester blasted the president.

"The cool, confident, intuitive leadership Bush exhibited in his first term, particularly in the months immediately following September 11, 2001, has vanished," the paper said. "In its place is a diffident detachment unsuitable for the leader of a nation facing war, natural disaster and economic uncertainty."