Politics with Juan Williams: Bush vs. the Hurricanes

For the second time in a month, forces of nature are testing George Bush's presidency. Noah Adams talks with NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams about the president's political strategy for dealing with Hurricane Rita's expected landfall on the Texas-Louisiana border.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

And President Bush today is checking on preparations for the hurricane as it threatens the coast. The president will monitor operations at the Northern Command center in Colorado Springs. It's the second time in a month that forces of nature have tested his presidency. At the Pentagon yesterday, President Bush gave a forthright warning about Rita.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: This is a big storm. And it's really important for our citizens that are on the Texas coast to follow the instructions of the local authorities.

ADAMS: This is a stark contrast from Hurricane Katrina. The president remained on vacation at his ranch in Texas as that storm hit and the flooding began. NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams is a regular contributor to DAY TO DAY. He talked with us earlier.

Six times the president has gone to the Gulf Coast since Katrina. Is there any risk here, Juan, that the trips might be seen as trying to sort of make up for lost political ground from the way the White House handled Katrina and what happened afterwards?

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

I don't think there's any doubt that his opponents, the president's opponents, see this as an attempt to make up for the damage that's been done, especially his falling poll numbers. The president's approval rating now consistently, you know, low 40s, high 30s. It really is the lowest it's been in his entire tenure as president. We said that last week. It remains the case this week. And what you see here is the president trying to create some response that is going to work with Republicans, Noah, as well as Democrats. When he went down and gave the speech from Jackson Square in New Orleans, it really was an attempt to say he's going to invest money, the moneys necessary to rebuild, not only New Orleans but also much of that Gulf Coast region. So all the conversation this week in the Congress has been about, well, how are we going to pay for the reconstruction of that area? It's widely assumed that it would cost about 200 billion. You've already had 62 billion approved. This is a tremendous amount of money, and the question is: Where does it come from? Are you going to cut existing spending or are you going to do away with some of the tax cuts?

ADAMS: Well, what about investigations? Will there be intensive Capitol Hill investigations into what went wrong right after Katrina came ashore? And even before?

WILLIAMS: What you hear from the Republicans who control, of course, both the Senate and the House is they plan to go ahead with investigations. The Democrats are boycotting the House part of this and saying that they want an independent sort of 9-11 Commission. The White House, for its part, has appointed the president's Homeland Security adviser, Frances Townsend, to have her own investigation into this, because the White House is resisting the call for that 9-11 Commission. So what you see here is Democrats not cooperating, wanting the independent commission, and the White House and much of the Republican leadership in the House saying, `We're going to do it without you.'

ADAMS: Well, what about the possible upsides for the president here, the positive things? A number of successes: peaceful elections in Afghanistan; there's progress with North Korea in talking about nuclear weapons; John Roberts, the president's choice for chief justice job, is approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Shouldn't this be an up arrow for the president here?

WILLIAMS: At the moment, Hurricane Katrina colors everything in the political picture so that everything is impacted by, including, for example, the American people saying that the money that's being spent in Iraq should be brought back home to help with reconstruction in the Gulf Coast region. In fact, if you look at the poll numbers right now, the questions about the president's leadership with regard to the hurricane are leading people to call more and more for America to get out of Iraq in increasing numbers. So you have not only the storms, increasing gas prices, but you have continuing concern about Iraq and you have the demonstrations that are going to take place here in Washington this weekend. So the--it's the case that there are some positive things, but at the moment all of that, Noah, is just background noise.

ADAMS: NPR's senior correspondent, regular DAY TO DAY contributor, Juan Williams, joins us on Friday.

Thank you, Juan.

WILLIAMS: My pleasure, Noah.

ADAMS: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Noah Adams.

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