Katrina Aftermath, Iraq Lower Support Ratings for Bush

Polls show that the administration's handling of Katrina relief and the war in Iraq have deepened public discontentment with the Bush administration.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

These are difficult times for the White House. Polls show widespread disapproval of President Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina. And its approval ratings were already in serious decline in August because of a deadly summer for US troops in Iraq, not to mention high gas prices. NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA reporting:

Hurricane Katrina seems to have the public looking at the president in an entirely new light. It's not just that his approval rating is at its lowest ever--40 percent in the Gallup Poll; it's that the storm seems to have hurt him on a range of seemingly unrelated questions. Take leadership. It's a trait the public has consistently seen in the president, and it was the centerpiece of the Bush re-election campaign last year.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Man: What sees us through tough times? Freedom, faith, families and sacrifice. President Bush: Steady leadership in times of change.

GONYEA: Less than a year ago, two out of three Americans polled said they considered the president a strong and decisive leader. Hurricane Katrina changed that. A CNN-USA Today Gallup Poll shows now that fewer than half of Americans see the president as a strong leader. Martha Joynt Kumar is a presidential scholar at Towson University.

Professor MARTHA JOYNT KUMAR (Towson University): So now you have this--a situation where it's called into question, because he was late seeing where the problem was. He had people in place who were not adequate to the task, and then he was late in speaking about it. So all of that combined pull into the question the quality of his leadership.

GONYEA: And Katrina appears to have pulled the rug out from under the president in other ways as well. As gasoline prices have gone up, his ratings for handling the economy have fallen; 63 percent now disapprove. Support for his handling of Iraq, already on the decline pre-Katrina, has tumbled even further since the storm; 67 percent now disapprove, even though the war has been largely pushed out of the media spotlight for the past several weeks. All of this has put the president on the defensive in his public appearances. He's appeared tentative in responding to questions and, at times, awkward, as in this speech in Washington two days ago when he made a connection between the hurricane and terror.

(Soundbite of speech)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: You see, we look at the destruction caused by Katrina, and our hearts break. The other kind of people look at Katrina and wish they had caused it. We're in a war against these people. It's a war on terror.

GONYEA: Also complicating things for the president politically, the Gallup Polls shows that a majority thinks the best way to pay for hurricane relief is to cut back on the Iraq War, which he says would be a mistake. In the past, the president established a pattern for dealing with bad news. If the economy was not doing well, he'd talk about terrorism, or if the war was in a difficult phase, he'd focus on some domestic issue. These days there are few bright spots to highlight. James Pfiffner of George Mason University says that doesn't mean the president can't turn things around, but he will need some major successes.

Professor JAMES PFIFFNER (George Mason University): It can't be just a small photo ops and so forth. It's got to be something important. The Katrina rebuilding may be one of those things. If things turn around and people start putting it back together and it looks good, he can point to that as a victory. Iraq is more difficult to see how that might turn around in the short run, and he doesn't seem to have plans to make any major changes there, so that's going to be much more difficult.

GONYEA: And as the president deals with Katrina and the approach of Hurricane Rita, it's a setback for his second-term priorities: tax cuts, Social Security and immigration. For now, there's little choice but to attend to the Gulf Coast region. Today he's visiting Texas in advance of Rita's arrival, making sure he's ahead of the storm this time and hoping for better weather ahead. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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