Politics with Juan Williams: Katrina's Perfect Storm

NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams speaks with Madeleine Brand about the political consequences of Hurricane Katrina for President Bush. Recent polls indicate the chaotic relief effort has diminished confidence in the federal government and could hurt Bush's political clout.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

If the Padilla decision is good news for the Bush administration, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is a far more mixed picture. The political fallout continues to be damaging for the president. He's trying to fix that and this Sunday will visit the Gulf Coast again. Every Friday we turn to NPR senior correspondent and regular DAY TO DAY contributor Juan Williams to discuss the week's major political news.

Hi, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Hello, Madeleine.

BRAND: Well, big news today. FEMA Director Michael Brown essentially relieved of his duties overseeing the Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. So this is a surprise, isn't it, for this White House, which is known for its loyalty?

WILLIAMS: Well, it is, but you know what? There was so much pressure and so much political pressure coming from Republicans as well as Democrats--Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House, has already said that the president--and I'm quoting here--"recognized what I've been saying for more than a week, that the federal response to this disaster must be managed by a capable leader." So this is a way of pushing Michael Brown aside without firing him, and I think that's how the loyalty plays into it. Brown was able to tell reporters that, really, he's being made a scapegoat by the press and not by the president.

BRAND: And let's talk about the president's job approval ratings. Where are they right now?

WILLIAMS: Well, there's the Pew poll out that shows that his job approval rating is now at the lowest it's been in his entire tenure as president of the United States, 40 percent, Madeleine. In fact, there's a Zogby poll that puts it at about 41 percent, so it's in the same area. And with regard to the hurricane, 67 percent of Americans say that this administration, the Bush administration, has done a bad job of handling it, responding to it, being quick about helping people who are suffering.

BRAND: And, Juan, what are people telling you there on Capitol Hill in Washington maybe off the record about what the president needs to do to boost his image?

WILLIAMS: Well, the foremost thing that I'm hearing--and, boy, there's a lot of back-room chatter, especially from the Republicans, who are afraid to take the president on directly--is that he needs to have a major address to the nation about what has taken place and about the federal government's lack of response, poor response--however you want to put it. In addition, they're talking about maybe that the president should appoint someone like a Rudy Giuliani, a Colin Powell, someone with a tremendous amount of personal appeal and reputation, as a czar of recovery--put someone in that position who could handle long-term relief efforts, reconstruction, so that you would have a sense of this administration coming to grips with a major catastrophe on the national scene.

Whatever is done, though, they feel the president has a need to make up for the flyover when he was first made aware of the extent of the damage. Remember, at one point he said, `Brown, you're doing a great job,' with regard to Michael Brown--that the president now needs to go back and say that maybe he didn't understand the gravity of the situation.

BRAND: And he does have an ambitious domestic agenda being eclipsed at the moment by this hurricane, but he does have this agenda. How does his declining popularity affect his ability to pull that off?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, it starts with Iraq, Madeleine, and what you have here is a situation where people already have declining support for the administration's handling of the war in Iraq. And so what you see is that people are saying, `Well, it was the leadership that really signified the president's ability after 9/11.' And so the president will talk about 9/11 and play on that leadership notion. But in this case you don't see the leadership, and I think that lots of people are now going to question, again: Where's the leadership on the hurricane? Where's the leadership in Iraq?

When it comes to Social Security and the kind of social safety net in the country, again, the hurricane and the tremendous need for disaster relief aid makes it more doubtful that the president will be able to proceed in any changes in Social Security. The same thing with tax reform--how are you going to change the tax system or even put in place greater tax benefits for the affluent at a time when the nation's budget is being directly strained by the need to help out those in need?

BRAND: And let's talk about the Democrats for a minute. They have been criticized in the past of not having a cohesive message. It does seem to have changed now in the wake of this hurricane.

WILLIAMS: Very much. I think that's one of the big stories of this week. I don't know if it's been told outside of Washington, Madeleine. But what you saw, of course, after 9/11 was Democrats afraid to criticize the president or lack of response in terms of helping with disaster relief up in New York and Virginia, the Pentagon. But now, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, you see that the Democrats are not worried about being called unpatriotic. Instead they are focusing on this leadership angle, lack of leadership, lack of efficient government response. So you get things like John Edwards, the Democrats' vice presidential nominee with John Kerry in 2004, saying, `This is evidence of two Americas and that the poor, the minorities in the country are not being tended to by this administration.' You get Howard Dean saying that, `This administration really didn't do anything until they understood they had a political problem on their hands as opposed to understanding the tremendous need to help people.'

BRAND: NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams joins us every Friday on DAY TO DAY to discuss the week's major political news.

And thank you, Juan.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Madeleine.

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