White House Reacts to Katrina Criticism

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The White House seeks to deflect political criticism stemming from the federal response to Katrina. Emphasis is on the overwhelming size of the storm, and mild counterattacks on the state and local response.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

President Bush began his day attending church services at St. John's Episcopal Church near the White House. Later he plans to address the nation from the White House in response to the news of Chief Justice William Rehnquist's death. The president visited the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast on Friday and is scheduled to return there tomorrow, meeting with New Orleans evacuees at Baton Rouge. Joining us to talk about the president's role in all this is NPR's White House correspondent Don Gonyea.

Good morning, Don.

DON GONYEA reporting:

Good morning.

HANSEN: The president has come under a lot of criticism this week, as has the entire federal government, for the slow response to this catastrophe. How is he responding and how is the White House in general responding to this?

GONYEA: The first thing they do is talk about all that is being done. The president in the Rose Garden yesterday, as he did the day before on the scene in the Gulf Coast region, talks using numbers and very specific statistics about the level of the response. But at the same time, they do recognize that the public is not at all satisfied with what has transpired--I mean, what the emergency and relief effort has amounted to so far. So the president has said that what we're seeing is not satisfactory, is not acceptable. Yesterday he talked about sending more troops in, this time active military, to beef up the National Guard presence that's already there. They hope the public will see that as a very positive sign and that it really will make a difference on the ground. So there's that.

The other thing the president did yesterday was he talked about the local and state response being overwhelmed, and later the Homeland Security secretary made reference to the fact that part of the reason that the feds were not on top of the scene as quickly as a lot of people think they should have been was because they were waiting for word from governors. So there has been some effort on the White House, mindful of the politics of all of this, to deflect at least some of the blame on local authorities.

HANSEN: Well, elaborate a little bit more on that. I mean, you mentioned local authorities, but where else is the White House perhaps suggesting the blame, the responsibility should go?

GONYEA: Well, they are saying, first off, that this is perhaps the largest natural disaster that the US has ever seen, and when you see the president talking about it in terms of an area that's been affected larger than all of Great Britain, they're also trying to underscore that this is so big that the kind of problems that we're seeing now are not perhaps to have been unexpected in terms of the response. But again, the White House is sensitive that so much of the criticism had been directed at the president and the federal response that they do seem intent on, A, making sure people see how big of a problem this is. We keep hearing them say things like, `Who could have anticipated it would have been this bad?' But also again yesterday we started to see that focus on state and local officials, like maybe they could have done more specifically around, you know, Louisiana and New Orleans.

HANSEN: I understand The Washington Post and ABC News have some fresh polling numbers out today on all this?

GONYEA: Yes, yes. Again, these are very early numbers, obviously because this is a, you know, new crisis and it's evolving as we speak. But on the question of was the government prepared or not, two-thirds say that the federal government was not prepared for this. That's a very low score. But if you look at state and local emergency response, 75 percent, so an even greater figure, say that the state and locals were not prepared. Not good for anyone, but worse for state and local governments.

On the question, `Do you blame President Bush?'--and that's a broad question, but 55 percent say, no, they don't; 44 percent say yes. On the basic question of now the president is handling this situation, how are people scoring his response, it's basically a wash: 46 percent approve, 47 percent disapprove. So that's essentially an even split there.

HANSEN: Of course, the other story today is the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist. On the Rehnquist question, is the White House ready with its next choice for the court, or will all of these developments make a difference?

GONYEA: Well, are they ready? They don't have a name they're ready to put forth at this point, and I suspect it'll be, you know, a bit before we actually get a nominee. If they proceed the way they did after the Sandra Day O'Connor announcement of her retirement, we will see, you know, perhaps some names being floated, we'll see the president saying he wants to take time. Of course, this is a chief justice, so it makes the ultimate choice that much more important. We will hear the first words from the president today on this, and expect that to be, you know, praise for Chief Justice Rehnquist and his years of service and condolences to his family, and a pledge to move forward and find a highly qualified nominee. That's the language I'd look for today.

HANSEN: NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea.

Don, thank you very much.

GONYEA: You're welcome.

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