Storms Shake Presidential Agenda

Big hurricanes have been known to change political landscapes. That's one reason the Bush administration is making every effort to rebound from the blow Hurricane Katrina has dealt to its agenda and standing.

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Big hurricanes can literally rearrange the landscape. Some storms change the political landscape as well. They have launched careers, ended them, influenced elections, brought eras to a close, which is one reason the Bush administration is making every effort to rebound from the blow it's been dealt by Hurricane Katrina. NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA reporting:

Any time a devastating hurricane strikes, it creates challenges and expectations for presidents.

(Soundbite of 1954 news broadcast)

Mr. EDWARD R. MURROW: The whole surface of the ocean is undulating, like some huge giant was shaking a carpet. Each huge wave seems to be dragging another along behind it.

GONYEA: That's CBS News' Edward R. Murrow, describing Hurricane Edna in 1954. From the early years of the television age, the nation has been able to watch while a storm races ashore and when the damage is significant, the critical questions come quickly for the White House. Presidential scholar Lance Dehaven-Smith teaches at Florida State University.

Professor LANCE DEHAVEN-SMITH (Florida State University): Oh, it is very much a challenge. It's an opportunity to shine if you can somehow pull out a great response, but it's much more likely that you're going to fall short. You've got an awful lot of people that are generally in trouble and in pain, and it's a long-lasting event.

GONYEA: And any missteps make things even more difficult, such as President Bush's statement on ABC News about the New Orleans levees in his first interview after the storm hit.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees. They did anticipate a serious storm, but these levees got breached, and as a result, much of New Orleans is flooded, and now we're having to deal with it and will.

GONYEA: In fact, there have long been predictions of broken levees devastating New Orleans. There were other problems for the administration early on after Katrina, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency not knowing about thousands stranded in hideous conditions in the Convention Center in New Orleans, even though the story was being widely reported. Florida State's Smith says this was the first big test post-9/11 and that some of the problems from that terrorist attack were seen again, most notably the communication failures of four years ago.

Prof. DEHAVEN-SMITH: The fire and the police were on different frequencies, and the federal government was on a different frequency. So certainly there's an expectation that stupid things like that are never going to happen again in these kinds of terrible situations. Then Katrina happens, and we see not only is the response inadequate; it's similarly inadequate. It's inadequate in many of the same ways.

GONYEA: The co-chairs of the independent commission investigating 9/11, Republican Tom Kean and Democrat Lee Hamilton, issued a statement saying the response to Katrina showed those lessons had not been learned. Smith compares elements of the controversy surrounding this latest hurricane to how the first President Bush responded to Hurricane Andrew, a monstrous storm that hit Florida in 1992. That president found himself on the defensive over delayed federal aid. The Florida governor back then, Democrat Lawton Chiles, had asked for help, but when it didn't immediately arrive, he was told by federal officials that he hadn't put his request in writing. Ten days ago, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff explained the delay in sending US troops to Louisiana by pointing to local officials and legal technicalities.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Department of Homeland Security): Part of the legal framework which governs the activities of the federal government, particularly the military, places certain restrictions on the way they can used in the United States. Part of that's because our constitutional system really places the primary authority in each state with the governor.

GONYEA: A powerful example of how a natural disaster can alter the politics of a region can be seen in the Florida of the 1920s. At the time, the state was not yet a tourism giant, and like the rest of the South, it voted Democratic in presidential elections. But in 1926 and '28, Florida was hit by two deadly hurricanes and Republican Herbert Hoover carried Florida in 1928. It was the only time in 75 years that Florida voted Republican for president. So could there be a political shift of some kind after Katrina? Professor Smith says it's possible.

Prof. DEHAVEN-SMITH: This is a situation which is probably the most fundamental thing that the government does. It protects people's houses and property and lives.

GONYEA: President Bush, of course, doesn't have to face re-election and the next test of his influence at the ballot box will be the midterm elections for Congress 14 months away. But more immediately, if his current low approval ratings in polls persist, he could find himself without the political momentum needed in Congress for the big items on his second-term list, including his budget priorities and his ambitious reordering of taxes, Social Security and immigration. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

STAMBERG: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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