Political Wrap: Katrina and the Racial Divide

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President Bush tours the New Orleans area on his third visit to the Gulf Coast since Hurricane Katrina struck. Cokie Roberts says the hurricane has pushed issues of race and class into the political spotlight. A sense of alienation among some African Americans could also come into play as the president looks to fill another vacancy on the Supreme Court.


Joining me now is NPR News analyst, Cokie Roberts. Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS reporting:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: President Bush is back in New Orleans today. It's his third visit to the Gulf Coast since Hurricane Katrina struck, and it takes place as his approval ratings have fallen sharply. Can this trip make a difference, do you think?

ROBERTS: Well, we'll see. Yesterday was the anniversary of September 11th. It was a solemn moment of silence with the president and vice president and their wives at the White House. But it was a reminder also of the president's defining moment when he grabbed that bull horn at ground zero after some initial stumbling in response to that crisis. But it's hard to see where he goes with a bull horn in New Orleans in this situation. And as you say, his approval ratings are the lowest they've ever been in the polls, and it also comes after a lot of criticism of the federal government and continued complaints by Democratic state and federal officials who are fighting back at the White House and Republicans who have tried to put the blame on them for the poor response to Katrina. So it's going to be much, much tougher for the president to pull this one out.

MONTAGNE: And one of the things that has been striking in the reaction to the hurricane is the racial divide that the entire response seems to have shown. What do you make of that?

ROBERTS: Well, usually, Renee, one of the silver linings of a natural disaster is that it brings us together, brings rich people and poor people, white people and black people, neighbors together. And this one has done just the opposite. In a Pew poll last week, almost three-quarters of blacks said they think the response would have been faster if the majority of victims were white, and only a quarter of whites agreed with that. Now the fact that white--poor whites in St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parish were equally distressed and arguably more abandoned in this hurricane is not really relevant to the perceptions when the pictures you've seen are almost entirely of black Americans in New Orleans who have been in devastated circumstances.

And the president, of course, has been trying to reach out to blacks to grow the Republican Party to a permanent majority. His Republican national chairman, Ken Mehlman, has been very much on that case. This obviously puts that political agenda in a very difficult position, and it also puts the questions of poverty and class and race back on the national agenda. And that's not particularly helpful to the Republican Party because of the kinds of programs that--the kinds of budget cuts and programs like Medicaid that they have proposed. So this is going to be extremely problematic for the president and the Republican Party.

MONTAGNE: Do you think that the sense of alienation among some African-Americans will have any impact on the hearings scheduled to begin today on John Roberts' nomination for chief justice?

ROBERTS: Yes, I do. I think that he will be questioned more closely about his civil rights opinions in the early days, some of which seem to be hostile to civil rights. And I think that if the Democrats seem too ready to accept John Roberts and to go along with this nomination that that could be a problem for them in the base of their own party. On the other hand, it's off the front burner as a story. It would be much more paid attention to were this natural disaster not facing us. So I think that the real question, Renee, is going to be the next pick, the nominee to replace Sandra Day O'Connor, and the pressure on the president to name a minority will be enormous there; not a white woman, a minority.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much. NPR News analyst, Cokie Roberts.

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