Desperately Seeking Swagger

Two major stories over the weekend suggest that a series of false steps, followed by accusations of incompetence and growing public disapproval, have left President Bush and his aides with their confidence badly shaken.

And in a big change as far as the press coverage of the president is concerned, aides and allies whose loyalty to Bush once precluded even the slightest public acknowledgement of any weakness anywhere in his White House appear to have lost some of their inhibitions -- at least on background...

Aides who never betrayed self-doubt now talk in private of failures selling the American people on the Iraq war, the president's Social Security plan and his response to Hurricane Katrina. . . .

"Most of all, White House aides want to reestablish Bush's swagger -- the projection of competence and confidence in the White House that has carried the administration through tough times since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. . . .

And it turns out that the Valerie Plame case is indeed hanging over the White House like a pall.

VandeHei and Baker write: "The federal CIA leak investigation, which has forced Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove and others to testify before a grand jury, seemed to distract officials and left a general feeling of unease, two aides said. Aides were calling reporters to find out what was happening with Rove and the investigation. 'Nobody knows what's going to happen with the probe,' one senior aide said."

Evan Thomas starts his piece in Newsweek with Bush sitting in the Colorado headquarters of Northern Command on Saturday.

"The president was hearing mostly good news. . . . The president didn't look all that relieved or happy, however. His eyes were puffy from lack of sleep (he had been awakened all through the night with bulletins), and he seemed cranky and fidgety. A group of reporters and photographers had been summoned by White House handlers to capture a photo op of the commander in chief at his post. Bush stared at them balefully. He rocked back and forth in his chair, furiously at times, asked no questions and took no notes...

"And so what can Americans learn from this month of destruction and near destruction, of Category 3s and Category 4s, of slow presidential reflexes and presidential hyperactivity? . . . In an age in which terrorists have successfully struck the American homeland and hope to do so again, the 2005 hurricane season has made a seemingly boring quality of leadership sexy again: competence. . . .

"Bush's presidency post 9/11 and his re-election were based on the hope and expectation of his ability to lead in crisis. There was nothing subtle or in any way ambivalent about the way Bush presented himself as the Man in Charge. Criticized (by pundits, by Europeans, even by his wife) for swaggering, Bush continued to play the cowboy and look as though he was enjoying it. . . .

Now he is trying, a little too hard, perhaps, to reassure the public that his government really is able to cope with chaos."

"The same President who appeared just a tad aloof taking in Katrina's wrath from Air Force One, or strumming a guitar after a speech as Katrina was striking, is now desperately seeking a new photo opportunity to symbolize his stewardship in response to Rita."

Gregory concludes: "Bottom line is, these are photo ops. White House aides admit they want Mr. Bush to be seen in briefings and personally tending to the government's response. Mr. Bush has no choice but to be in the middle of the action. Disaster relief and rebuilding are now the canvas of his second term. Between storms and war, the President's vision may face less scrutiny than his administration's basic competence."

It's All About the Lighting

Gregory was asking specifically about Bush's planned stop in San Antonio Friday afternoon -- which for one reason or another never happened.

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times from San Antonio, where many members of the press corps ended up anyway: "President Bush was supposed to land here on Friday afternoon on the first stop of a tour intended to make clear that he was personally overseeing the federal government's preparations for Hurricane Rita's landfall. But the weather did not cooperate.

"It was too sunny.

"Just minutes before Mr. Bush was scheduled to leave the White House, his aides in Washington scrubbed the stop in San Antonio. Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, explained that the search-and-rescue team that Mr. Bush had planned to meet and thank here in San Antonio was actually packing up to move closer to where the hurricane would strike. . . .

"Another White House official involved in preparing Mr. Bush's way noted that with the sun shining so brightly in San Antonio, the images of Mr. Bush from here might not have made it clear to viewers that he was dealing with an approaching storm."

And as for getting in the way, Thomas's piece in Newsweek adds this detail: "On Saturday afternoon, as reporters and advance men in Bush's entourage squeezed into the Texas emergency-ops center, a worker handling requests for generators cried out, 'Whose idea was this? I can't do my work! I am about to really lose it!' "

No Ranch for the Weary

Bush generally takes advantage of every chance -- and then some -- to spend the night at his beloved Crawford ranch.

But David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times that, "however tantalizingly close, the ranch was clearly off-limits on this trip. The last night Mr. Bush spent there was just after the levees broke in New Orleans. While he returned to Washington the next day, flying over the flooded city on the way, his initial presence at the ranch and images of him viewing the disaster from the climate-controlled comfort of Air Force One reinforced the image of a leader detached. No one could afford that on Saturday."

A New Blame Game Begins

U.S. News reports: "Conservatives chafing at President Bush's Hurricane Katrina spending plan and depressed with his low poll numbers are beginning to blame his top staff for moving too slowly to reverse the slide. Indeed, some suggest that the president needs to bring in new top staff to invigorate his administration. 'He needs a new group of people with energy and ideas around him,' says a GOP strategist with ties to the White House. 'They're like a dying cellphone battery.' Ever since the re-election campaign ended, the president's supporters have worried that his top staff was worn out. It's a feeling administration staffers have often concurred with. But White House insiders balk at calls for changes, claiming that the president knows exactly what his political situation is and has a long-term plan built on new initiatives that will drown out the critics next spring."
More Michael Browns?

Mark Thompson, Karen Tumulty and Mike Allen write in Time: "When President Bush's former point man on disasters was discovered to have more expertise about the rules of Arabian horse competition than about the management of a catastrophe, it was a reminder that the competence of government officials who are not household names can have a life or death impact. The Brown debacle has raised pointed questions about whether political connections, not qualifications, have helped an unusually high number of Bush appointees land vitally important jobs in the Federal Government."

They note that "this Bush Administration had a plan from day one for remaking the bureaucracy, and has done so with greater success.

"As far back as the Florida recount, soon-to-be Vice President Dick Cheney was poring over organizational charts of the government with an eye toward stocking it with people sympathetic to the incoming Administration. . . .

"And Bush has gone further than most Presidents to put political stalwarts in some of the most important government jobs you've never heard of, and to give them genuine power over the bureaucracy."
A Discouraging Word

White House aides claim that Bush often presides over spirited policy debates and encourages people to disagree with him. This may or may not be true.

But it sure doesn't happen in public. With the notable exception of the presidential debates, I don't think I've ever seen someone say something in front of Bush that he didn't want to hear.

So it's somewhat notable that Maj. Gen. John White of the Army, at yesterday's briefing in San Antonio, actually called what happened in New Orleans "a train wreck."

What White and other generals were there for was not to mess up Bush's narrative -- the president spoke glowingly of "some amazingly heroic efforts in pulling people off roofs" -- but to publicly call for a national plan to address the military's role in search and rescue operations.
The Military Role

And indeed, Bush garnered headlines across the country today for his suggestion that Congress consider a larger role for the armed forces in responding to disasters.

Jim VandeHei and Josh White write in the Washington Post: "Bush has told aides that one of the major breakdowns in the Hurricane Katrina response was the federal government's inability to seize control of rescue and relief efforts. Under existing law and procedure, a state governor is in charge when natural disasters strike and is responsible for deploying the National Guard, though in certain cases, the president can order troops to support local law enforcement."

But consider this: "Federal law, response plans and congressional studies -- plus what happened this past week for Hurricane Rita -- make it plain that there is already abundant authority to request the military. . . .

"Under the new National Response Plan unveiled last winter, local military commanders are authorized and pre-approved 'to respond to requests of civil authorities' for 'immediate response' needs, including rescue, evacuation, medical treatment, restoration of vital services and safeguarding and distribution of food and supplies, said Michael Greenberger, director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland School of Law.

"The military is also allowed to provide whatever other disaster support is necessary."

And Hurricane Rita, apparently, was a case in point.

Jonathan S. Landay, Seth Borenstein and Alison Young write for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "The Bush administration says it's researching whether the federal government needs to have greater authority to respond to disasters -- and whether the military should be in charge.

"The response to Rita, however, suggests that the government had plenty of authority to respond to Katrina and that what was lacking during Katrina was an understanding of when to use that authority."

Desperately Seeking Swagger


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