Bush Takes Responsibility for Katrina Failures

President Bush held a joint press conference with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani at the White House on Tuesday to — but many of the questions directed to President Bush were focused on Hurricane Katrina relief and recovery efforts. In a frank admission, Bush took responsibility for federal failures in the disaster response.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

President Bush today said more about who was responsible for the federal government's mistakes in dealing with Hurricane Katrina. Here's what the president said during a short news conference at the White House.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government. And to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility. I want to know what went right and what went wrong.

BRAND: The president spoke with Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, at his side.

Joining us now from Washington is NPR White House correspondent David Greene.

And, David, I take it this news conference was planned to focus on Iraq, but the president ended up talking about Katrina. Tell us more about what he said.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

Yeah. Hi, Madeleine.

It was interesting that the president walked down a long hallway at the White House with President Talabani, past American flags and Iraqi flags, and the focus was supposed to be on Iraq and the war there. And immediately, the first question the president took was about Hurricane Katrina. He said that he does take responsibility, and that's a big deal; those are not words that often come from George W. Bush.

But as you just heard, he made clear that that was only to the extent that the federal government did something wrong. So there's no doubt the door is still open for the administration to blame others once they get to investigating how this happened. But certainly a recognition in the change of tone, that the polls haven't been rewarding the tougher, no-blame game type of language we've heard from Mr. Bush the last few days.

BRAND: Well, let's talk about those polls. How bad have they gotten?

GREENE: They've got to some of the lowest of his presidency. In most national polls, in fact, one poll hit as low as 38 percent. And if that's not bad enough, the extraordinary thing is in many ways, you might expect polls to be going up. At a time of catastrophe, you would expect to see the rally-around effect that the presidents usually get. It hasn't happened; it's, in fact, gone the other direction. And the White House has announced that the president's going to give a major address from Louisiana on Thursday night, so there's no doubt that they're reacting and trying to reverse this.

BRAND: Well, David, did Iraq come up at all at this event?

GREENE: It did. The president and President Talabani spoke about Iraq in their opening statements. In fact, President Talabani spoke for about 10 or 12 minutes in a very rambling opening statement. He thanks the United States for support. He also defended the draft constitution that has hit some major problems and major opposition from Sunnis in Iraq. He said, `Look, this is a document that has problems. There are a lot of challenges ahead, but it's the best constitution in the Middle East region,' and he urged Americans to support it.

It was interesting. He was not speaking in English when he was answering questions, and this led to the feeling that Iraq was not important, at least in the American media, because you saw the president of the United States and US reporters just kind of sitting there as President Talabani was engaging in these exchanges--very important subjects nonetheless to be sure--with the reporters from Iraq.

BRAND: With no translation?

GREENE: No translation at all. It was a pretty odd feeling. But Talabani did say--he did seem to scale back some comments he had made to The Washington Post in an interview that was--generated a lot of interest in Washington today. He had said that as many as 50,000 US troops might be pulled out of Iraq this year, and that was off-message with the Bush administration. He was back on-message at this new conference. He said that any timetable for withdrawal might help the terrorists, and that's exactly what we've heard from President Bush.

BRAND: And I understand the president left for New York right after that news conference. What's he doing there?

GREENE: He did. He's taking part in the convening of the UN General Assembly. It's the beginning of the season up at the UN, if you will, and he's trying as he may to focus on foreign policy. It doesn't get any easier dealing with those issues than it's been for him in Louisiana. He has his new UN ambassador, John Bolton, who has angered a lot of other countries up at the UN with his reluctance to go along with millennium development goals that a lot of nations have set to help developing nations around the world. The president's going to be dealing with that criticism.

He also wants to put some pressure on Syria to stop terrorists from crossing the border into Iraq, and he said he's also going to bring up the subject of Iran and its nuclear ambitions when he gets up there today.

BRAND: NPR White House correspondent David Greene. Thanks a lot, David.

GREENE: Thank you, Madeleine.

BRAND: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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